The Most Important Issue

I’ve seen some political surveys recently that ask respondents to pick the most important issue to them from a predefined list, and I’ve never had any of these lists include what I think is the most important issue facing our country right now. This is probably because it’s hard to condense my issue into a pithy phrase. Generally, I would go for a choice such as “science and technology policy” or “research, innovation, and education,” but items like those almost never appear in the poll options.

We live in a fast-moving world, and I am concerned about the United States’ ability to keep up. Perennial stories crop up in the news of how US students’ test scores are falling in science and math, how high technology is moving to India and China, how other countries are committing increasing resources to clean energy, space stations, or Moon probes. Companies in the US are much more focused on next-quarter profits than they are on research and development. Congressmembers routinely attack the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health for wasting taxpayer money by spending it on basic research. In such a climate, I am worried about whether, in the next decade or two, the US will cede global leadership to other countries. The problem isn’t just money, but also the level of public awareness, understanding, and engagement of the work coming out of places like the NSF and NASA.

This is not just an idealistic policy issue – it’s also an education issue, economic issue, and national security issue. Do we want to create high-paying, rewarding jobs? We can do so by investing in high-tech infrastructure. Do we want American companies to innovate? We need to make sure they have incentives for longer-term R&D. Do we want our transportation systems to be safe from terrorist threats? Then we need intensive research on efficient and sensible ways to identify concealed weapons. Do we want true energy security for the long haul? Then we need to pursue technological solutions for renewable or clean energy sources. Do we want our military to remain effective and safe? Then we need to give our soldiers, sailors, and airmen the latest technologies. Do we want our children to be able to compete in the global marketplace when they grow up and start looking for work? We need to equip them with the best tools we can. And do we want our policymakers to make informed and well-considered decisions about all these issues? Then we need to make sure they are well-educated about science and technology, too!

I want candidates for office to advocate enhanced support for the NSF, NIH, Department of Energy, and NASA. I want them to stand for infrastructure investments. I want them to speak highly of science and engineering scholarship or fellowship programs. I want them to care about basic research. I want them to commit federal dollars to programs that clearly enhance our capabilities and quality of life, but corporations won’t pursue because of their myopic short-term goals. I want them to openly consult the smartest people they can find when considering these issues.

That’s what I think is the most important issue in America. Science and technology policy. Science and math education. High-tech infrastructure. Secure energy. The value of intelligence and critical thinking. In short: the future. Continue reading The Most Important Issue

CubeSats are Cool Sats

This past week, some CubeSat developers got to see something that few space programs – and almost no CubeSat programs – ever do.

Floating by…

These CubeSats are “1U” size – 10 x 10 x 10 cm cubes – and deployed from a device mounted to the International Space Station. This deployment mechanism afforded Expedition 33 astronauts the ability to photograph the tiny spacecraft as they serenely drifted past the Station’s solar wings. Not many spacecraft builders ever get to see their work take flight!

A common scene in CubeSat concept art
A common scene in CubeSat concept art

CubeSats are awesome because they cost less than $100,000 to build and launch, which means that they can be playgrounds for new technologies. In an economic environment where it takes $30 or 60 or 80 million to put a satellite to orbit, and where businesses’ most intense priority is on increasing next-quarter earnings, very few private organizations are willing to gamble on new technologies or designs – even if those designs might improve the state of the art and give a company a huge advantage. But CubeSats are cheap. They fall within university research group budgets. They let technology developers take risks. They can be pathfinders for new ideas!