Reaching for the Moon in the 1960s was a stupendous challenge, and it required an enormous investment in aerospace research and development (R&D). During the period since the end of the Apollo program, however, the nation’s investment in aerospace R&D has declined by more than half of what it was during the heyday of space exploration. As a percentage of U.S. government investment in R&D, NASA’s portion accounted for 14 percent of the nation’s total in 1980 but that amount has declined to 7 percent.
Is this an acceptable situation for the nation that has led the world throughout the 20th century in air and space technology, achieving stunning success in all manner of accomplishments, transforming the lives of every person on our planet? I think not.
These total declines tell only part of the story. In the last few decades, the federal government has contributed ever smaller shares toward the nation’s R&D funding. Government investment accounted for as much as 66.8 percent of all R&D dollars in 1964. The federal share of R&D funding first fell below 50 percent in 1979, and it remained between 44 and 47 percent from 1980 to 1988. Since that time, the federal government’s share of the nation’s R&D has fallen even further, to less than 23 percent in 2008. Fortunately, the administration of President Barack Obama recognizes this situation and is working to increase federal support for R&D, taking it up to at least the percentage of investment made in 2000.
Despite this decline, the results of those federal investments are everywhere around us. It was in no small measure from government investment in miniature electronics technologies in the 1960s and 1970s that the many devices we use today, such as smartphones, sprang. It is from government investment in computing and telecommunications technology that the Internet emerged. It was from government R&D that our space-based system of navigation, GPS, has made reading a paper map obsolete. These are only a few examples among thousands that might be offered.
But what of the future? Without question, the U.S. is at a critical juncture regarding the long-term health of its aerospace enterprise. Knowledge is critical to maintaining America’s competitive edge in aerospace technology. It is only possible to maintain our leading edge by increasing investment in a comprehensive R&D program. Failure to do so will put U.S. aerospace leadership at risk.
Recognizing this threat to America’s leadership, the Obama administration has recently re-emphasized investment in aerospace R&D and within NASA by creating a special organization and program, the Office of the Chief Technologist and the Space Technology program. The goal is to pursue cutting-edge research, technology and innovation to enable NASA’s missions in aeronautics, science and space exploration while also enhancing America’s technological future.
Because NASA plays such a vital role in America’s innovation engine, our future economic prosperity and security rest on this renewed commitment to R&D. NASA’s new Space Technology program is one part of an overall national investment in research, technology and innovation. This effort will stimulate new innovations, job creation and increased global economic competitiveness. The program also will position NASA’s aeronautics, science and human space exploration programs for great success during the coming decades. Perhaps we can change the game through payoffs in high-risk technology.
Imagine sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, where they have been orbiting for the last 40 years, to explore compelling destinations such as near Earth asteroids and Mars. Imagine passenger-carrying aerospace planes that can take off from runways, travel to the edge of space, and land half a world away, all in the space of a couple of hours. Imagine space vehicles reaching into orbit with the reliance and safety of commercial airliners. Imagine finding an Earth-like planet in another solar system. Imagine discovering life under the ice of Europa or at some other place in this solar system.
All of these imaginings are possible with strategic investments in the technology of flight. Who knows what transforming discoveries will be made during the next 50 years that will alter the course of the future?
Only through smart, high-payoff research and technology investments will those discoveries be realized. Only one feature is inevitable: The unexpected will occur. I believe the future will be one in which the unexpected will enhance our lives and our understanding of the universe, if we make the necessary strategic technology investments in that future today.
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.