Do you remember the future when you were a kid? The one that couldn’t come soon enough? We looked forward to the next space flight, the next scientific discovery. We heard about meals instantly cooked by sound waves, TV wrist watches, robots that vacuumed the floor, cars that steered themselves — or even flew!
Well, we’ve had some disappointments — no flying car just yet — and some major problems: climate change, terrorism, nuclear threats. Still, I’m surprised when people think we live in a dark time. Look at just this one state, Maryland, and you will see that the future looks a lot brighter than we think.
Here’s how to keep a perspective that won’t just make us feel better. It may actually help make the future better.
Look beyond your backyard — or even your planet. The region between the Earth and the Moon, a “gravity well,” comprises one of humanity’s fastest-growing economies, with communications satellites and nascent tourism, mining and manufacturing, with particular opportunities in Maryland. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, for example, is set to launch the James Webb Telescope in 2021. It promises to look, literally, into the origins of the universe. The James Webb will be parked in a “flat” spot in space, near what’s known as the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, where a satellite can remain stationary relative to the Earth and the sun without expending much energy. You’ll be hearing a lot more about L2 in the future, as scientific, industrial and tourist operations begin to settle this virtual plain.
Allow for failure. Engineers are taught to test to failure — to find the limits of a device or material. We must allow our leaders to try new things if they are based on rational thinking and not hammer them when those things don’t work out.
Encourage STEM. America is rapidly falling behind educating students in science, technology, engineering and math. A majority of PhDs in STEM are being awarded to foreign-born students, who increasingly are returning to their home countries after getting an education here. Every American Nobel Prize awarded this year went to an immigrant. This is a wonderful thing; but it’s a sign that native-born Americans have lost interest in STEM. To influence the future in the most positive way, we need some of our best minds to pursue STEM. Maryland makes that easy, being one of the leading states for STEM education. It has nine of the top-ranked STEM high schools in the nation, according to US News & World Report. Towson High, in Baltimore County is one of them. If you want one-stop shopping for STEM education, considering attending the kid-friendly STEM Festival, held throughout the state (including Baltimore city and county) this fall.
Love thy global neighbor (and copy our competitors). We tend to isolate ourselves more than our competition does. We should demand of our news media that they cover the progress of other nations. Why does Finland’s education system produce such high-scoring students? What can we learn from Canada’s immigration policies? What’s behind Europe’s vastly lower crime rate? How is China trying to beat us in the tech race? At the same time, we need to resume our role as a leader in international cooperation. The International Space Station is more than a wonder of technology, it exists only through the cooperation of many nations.
Our parents and grandparents (and their parents and grandparents) worked hard to give us a future we could eagerly anticipate. And we’ve got it. We just need to stop yearning for a past that never really was; and to see the futures we inherit and create as gifts.
Stephen Sandford spent 28 years as an engineer and executive at NASA. He currently is chief technology officer at Psionic, an American company that commercializes lidar technology developed for NASA missions. Jay Heinrichs (firstname.lastname@example.org) co-wrote “The Gravity Well” with Mr. Sandford.