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A rocket scientist's lament

I still remember — although details are somewhat cloudy now, the gist of it is still clear as bell — the night when my teen and toddler brother and sisters, my father, some workers on the farm and I sat around a fire, on a somewhat cold night, in the middle of a jungle, and, with an occasional roar of a panther in the background, listened to a decrepit old radio. It was the late 60's in Western India, on my father's farm, and we were all very excited.

We were trying very hard to listen, amid heavy static, to the live broadcast of a NASA capsule splash-landing in the ocean, after a journey around the moon. We were amazed and awestruck that NASA and the United States could send a craft hundreds of thousands of miles and still have it come back and land in a pre-designated, three-mile-radius area — and do that safely.

Our respect for what the U.S. could do, which was already fairly high, increased immensely. NASA was amazing, and it symbolized the United States for many around the world.

What a country, this America! What incredible people! It was hard to control the desire to come here, study aerospace, get a PhD, become a rocket scientist and work in this field.

The Soviet Union also did spaceflight but would announce its ventures after the fact. Not the U.S. I thought, "This is where the next stage of evolution of human beings is occurring" — an intellectual evolution. It was very exciting. It was very satisfying. It was transparent. And it was not just NASA. America at that time was also abuzz with many creative questions, and with people's free right to pursue the sometimes unlikely answers.

What happened to that excitement, that spark? For an answer, one need only look at the relative valuation our society makes on different creative strains to see how our competitiveness has been and will be affected.

In 1970, total national spending (public and private) on health care was about 19 times larger than NASA's budget ($73 billion vs. $3.6 billion). Four years earlier, during the heyday of the Apollo program, the ratio of health care spending to NASA spending was about 6 to 1.

Today's ratio? Almost 165 to 1 ($3 trillion to $18.1 billion, give or take a few billions). In 21/2 days, America will spend more on health care than it will spend on NASA in an entire year.

Since 2002, health care spending has gone up by 87 percent, compared to cumulative inflation, which is 19 percent in that time. In no other industry would one see such egregious overspending.

Imagine if increases in health spending had been held the inflation rate for the same time period. With those savings, we could have doubled funding for NASA, renewable energy R&D, the National Endowment for the Arts ($121 million), the National Endowment for the Humanities ($141 million), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($480 million), the National Science Foundation ($7.4 billion) and many other creative activities essential for any civilization. By devoting a portion of those savings to scientific research, we would have developed a hypersonic plane that could take people to orbit and go half way around the world in less than two hours, something that could revolutionize space and long-distance travel for the whole human race. It would have helped us to maintain our competitive edge — with less money than the country spends on health care in a few hours.

We would have been the envy of the world. We would have even been loved by the world. We still can — but it will never happen without controlling this bear of a cost of health care.

Of course, this numbers game is just part of the story. A much larger shock is coming in the form of a considerably decreased interest in science and technological fields by the best brains of this country. If a rocket scientist can expect to make half what an average primary care physician makes (perhaps 10 times less than a brain surgeon) and have an uncertain future, why would any self-respecting promising student consider being a rocket scientist anymore rather than a high-paying position in medicine, law or finance?

Is it any wonder that India and China are "racing us to the top," as The New York Times' Tom Friedman says? It has been reported that China is leading the global race for clean energy.

As a small business owner, it is frightening to me to see health care costs at $17,544 per year for a family of four — an amount higher than typical federal taxes for that family. Premiums have more than doubled in the last six years, an amount that, for many businesses, would be the equivalent of hiring three or four workers in India or China. Small businesses would love to cover all their employees, but the cost has become atrocious.

To Democrats in Congress, I would say: Increasing spending on science and technical education is fine and dandy — indeed, a prerequisite for reestablishing our creative leadership — but it will do nothing for these students once they graduate without an equivalent effort to change the country's priorities. As for the Affordable Care Act, the goal is laudable (to cover everyone), but it will not reduce per-capita costs, despite pronouncements to the contrary.

Republicans, for their part, need to understand that the situation, as it stands today, is severely hurting those of us who passionately want to help in this country's defense and its technological competitiveness, as well as small businesses (many of them your supporters). Promising a reduction in taxes for small businesses is a red-herring; increases in health care costs far outweigh any savings from taxes.

The purpose of our nation's medical, legal and financial establishments ought to be to move the country forward, fueling innovations in science and the arts. Instead, these institutions have become self-perpetuating, ever-expanding ends unto themselves. This situation is dangerous and unsustainable.

Ignoring this problem will be a great detriment to innovativeness in the country and will result in our continuing to lose our technological edge. That means no more "Number One." And that will be a real tragedy in the not-too-distant future.

It would be nice to have great health care at a reasonable price, but what we have today is reasonable health care at a huge price — at the cost of the creative endeavors of a civilization, effectively killing the goose that lays golden eggs. The Apollo program is still cited as an example of inspiring scientists and engineers, and Neil Armstrong's death last month brought back vivid memories of that time for many. But to me, the memory of Apollo — so influential in forming who I am today — is now a sad joke.

When people refer to things that are not too cerebrally demanding, they use two phrases more or less interchangeably: "It's not rocket science" and "It's not brain surgery." Well, in America, the rocket scientists have lost, and the brain surgeons have won. I am a rocket scientist. Too bad for me — and for the country.

Ajay P. Kothari, Ph.D., is CEO and founder of a small, space-based company in Maryland that has done research and development for orbital access vehicles for the Air Force and NASA. His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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