Give 'Em A Buck

March 13, 2006
Throwing money at the problem worked for the U.S. government 50 years ago when the nation was struggling to compete technologically. So why not now?

A few days ago, I was talking with the other Electronic Design editors about trends in engineering careers for the magazine’s June 30 "Megatrends" special issue. I’d already put in my usual two cents about analog and power—the supply of engineers is low, but look at what you have to go through to be one. While CS grads can be productive almost from the time they first sit down in their cubicles, analog and power engineers generally must serve some sort of apprenticeship before they can pull their own weight. The outcome is that a limited number of companies work with a limited number of schools to make sure that analog/power engineer wannabes are properly educated. So the number of non-CS engineering graduates is limited by the number of companies that can afford to nurture them. On top of that, with the best of intentions, the corporations can’t help focusing on problems that offer fast return-on-investment, so if research is your thing, good luck.

But we’d all heard me say that before.

Well, there were ants at the picnic, but for something created by politicians in a hurry in an atmosphere of panic, what they came up with was pretty good. And it involved throwing a lot of money at a problem and realizing that the results would not be distributed perfectly evenly.

As the discussion wound on, I started to remember a time when opportunities for all young engineers seemed endless. A time when it seemed there were tons of people that were trying to help you understand engineering as a profession of boundless possibilities.

By sheer accident, I hit high school at a time when there was a tectonic shift in the whole educational establishment, a shift that, luckily, favored the nerdy and the math savvy. (Actually, I was more of the former and less of the latter. That’s why I mostly write about engineering.) The shift was not without its downsides, but, oh, it was glorious if you were a crew-cut white male with a slide rule flopping awkwardly on your belt. Every class I took had new equipment, new books, and motivated teachers who weren’t forced to coach some sport to keep their jobs. Let me crank up the wayback machine and go back to the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, and the almost concurrent birth of NASA and the space program.

I can tell you this was not a time when the country was rolling in wealth. There was a major recession in 1957. I remember the auto industry was so desperate to sell new cars that one slogan had the godawful pun: "You AUTO buy now!" It was supposed to convey the idea that—well, I never have figured out what the idea was. It’s almost half a century later, and I have NEVER heard a stupider advertising slogan.

Okay, point made about the state of the economy. So what was the NDEA? Here’s a Wikipedia entry: ". . . federal legislation passed in 1958 providing aid to education in the United States at all levels, public and private. NDEA was instituted primarily to stimulate the advancement of education in science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages; but it has also provided aid in other areas, including technical education, area studies, geography, English as a second language, counseling and guidance, school libraries and librarianship, and educational media centers. The act provides institutions of higher education with 90% of capital funds for low-interest loans to students. NDEA also gave federal support for improvement and change in elementary and secondary education."

(By the way, my riff here on NDEA is not intended to play down the importance of the GI Bill. A significant portion of my classmates in engineering school in the early ‘60s were ex-servicemen, but the WWII and post-Korea GI bills focused on tuition payments, not the educational institutions themselves.)

The NDEA was a direct response to Russia’s Sputnik launch in October in 1957. Sputnik was the first satellite, but it did not escape people’s attention that what launched it was also the first practical intercontinental ballistic missile. In the USA, meanwhile, the Naval Research Laboratory failed in December of that same year to launch a Vanguard rocket carrying an American satellite. The Army finally launched a modest softball-sized satellite a month or so later.

This was scary stuff. Throughout the ‘50s, we had duck-and-cover drills in school. (I guess it was in case the Russians would bomb, oh, Albany, instead of New York City. If those bombers had hit anything closer than Poughkeepsie we’d have been glow-in-the-dark crispy critters.) The country was justifiably terrified of the possible results of a war with the USSR. Just the previous year, the Soviets had reminded everybody how ruthless they could be when they put down the Hungarian uprising.

Scary, as it turned out, meant good things for science education. There’s a paper on-line, presented to the American Historical Society in 1998 by John Aubrey Douglass. It’s called, "The Cold War, Technology and The American University." In it, Douglass says, "To a large degree, American popular opinion credited the Soviet educational system with Sputnik's success. Here was the source for its scientists and engineers—the labor pool required to pursue technology related research and for conceiving and constructing the rockets that propelled Sputnik. Conversely, the reason for America's apparent second place position in both the arms and space races was its faltering schools and universities. Among the American public, the correlation seemed obvious." Douglass’ observation squares with what I remember of the times.

Two remarkable legislative actions by Congress followed Sputnik. One affected science education; the other turned into a virtual New Deal-type full-employment program for engineers. These were the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in September of 1958, and the establishment of NASA a month later. The NDEA was crafted by the Atomic Energy Commission’s Glenn Seaborg, retired Harvard president James Conant, and Elliot Richardson (Yes, that Eliott Richardson) from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Let’s stay with NDEA. I’ll get back to NASA shortly.

Under NDEA, federal expenditures for education more than doubled. At universities, this included funding for federal student loan programs, graduate fellowships in the sciences and engineering, institutional aid for teacher education, funding for capital construction, and funds for curriculum development in the sciences, math, and foreign languages. (Foreign Languages? Yes. Mainly, you had to be able to read German to access some of the top journals.)

The NDEA provided funding for both K-12 and higher education. But its greatest impact was within the realm of an evolving and expanding network of research universities.

Here’s a cool thing. NDEA was not crafted to satisfy every possible constituency. Douglass quotes Philip Coombs, the director of the Fund for the Advancement of Education in 1960, as saying, "’A careful reading of the Act makes it obvious that Congress knowingly took positions on issues which the educators themselves are still \["still" meaning "in 1960"\] debating.’" Congress, Coombs explained, "’ took a stand in favor of differential programming for abler students in the schools and colleges; it took a stand on debatable curriculum questions by giving special attention to foreign languages, science, and mathematics . . . And it also took the stand, with which many educators do not yet agree, that modern communications such as films and television should be given a much larger role in the learning process.’"

There were also a lot of not-cool things. Nothing in the act encouraged women or minorities to study science. In fact, the framers of the act had to convince certain senators and representatives that the legislation would not force Southern universities to de-segregate. This being the ‘50s, Title X of the act required a loyalty oath. The whole structure of NDEA favored applied science over pure research.

Readers could probably remind me of more serious flaws. But if NDEA wasn’t the best, it was good. And that made it better than anything whipped up to be best. It happened a whole lot faster. And, by the standards of the time, it was throwing a whole lot of money at the problem. I’ve looked for an account of the cost of the program, but haven’t yet been able to find it.

Now, as to NASA —During the winter of 1957-1958, presidential and congressional staffers also got together to draft legislation creating a permanent federal agency dedicated to exploring space. It wasn’t easy to sell the administration on it. President Eisenhower had never bought into the "missile gap" argument. And, as he said in his infamous 1961 valedictory speech, " . . . we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." That statement shows that he was downright cynical about the relationship between the Pentagon and the defense industry. He was also reluctant to present the Russians with a new military escalation in the form of a "Star-Wars" like new weapons push.

Ike turned down many proposals, including one by the Department of Science and Technology. Ultimately, he had his science advisor, James R. Killian, and the President's Science Advisory Committee produce a plan for a new space-flight organization. The result was a proposal to rename the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and put it in charge of spaceflight. NACA had started in 1915 to support civilian aviation by doing the basic research that the nascent air-transportation industry couldn’t do (or that would lead to safety issues if it were left to the patent attorneys to fight over). If you fly on an airplane, odds are that the wing cross-sections were developed by NACA. As NASA, a civilian organization, the new, expanded NACA could fill the requirements of the job without further straining Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

NASA was to "plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities"; to involve the nation's scientific community in these activities; and to widely disseminate information about them. Its first task was the development of a human space exploration program.

For at least the first couple of decades the program worked well, and I insist that it was mostly by throwing a lot of money at the problem. It was expected that there would be foul-ups, but NASA had the funds to track them down and validate the solutions.

During the Apollo program, I was working at Garrett AiResearch (on C5 programs, not Apollo), and a possible problem came up with the capsule environmental control system. The system used lithium hydroxide for CO2 scrubbing. After one mission, perennially unlucky astronaut Gus Grissom complained that something in the cabin had made his eyes water, and he suggested, not unreasonably, that maybe LiOH powder was escaping its canister and getting into the cabin atmosphere. A special Apollo taskforce (there were several at Garrett while I was there), independent of the design team, formed to put the whole environmental system through the wringer. In the end, they concluded to NASA’s satisfaction that there was no failure mode in which LiOH could have escaped, but that mission logs suggested that Grissom could have released a little Tang breakfast-drink powder into the cabin environment at one point. Poor Grissom looked foolish. In a less ironic universe, though, he might later have complained about possible sources of ignition in the Apollo capsule’s pure oxygen atmosphere, and his life, along with Chaffee’s and White’s would have been spared. (I can’t help but wonder if he would have, if it weren’t for the Tang embarrassment.)

On the down side, the space program didn’t feed hungry children or prepare them for school. It diverted money from pure research. And maybe a robot could have brought back some moon rocks too. ("That’s one small step for an artificial intelligence . . . ") NASA didn’t invent or even anticipate the microprocessor. (That was some guy at a memory company who thought, "Gee, this thing doesn’t have to be just a pocket adding machine.") And it was two guys from Bell Labs, not NASA, who found the background noise left over from the Big Bang. (Well, we’ve made sure that will never happen again, haven’t we?)

But the space program worked. Over and over again, it worked. At least it worked when we were throwing lots of money at the problem. If you want proof of my thesis, note that it has stopped working. In these latter days, NASA was hamstrung by "Better, Cheaper, Faster." My God, all through my engineering career, that was a joke: "Better, Cheaper, Faster: Pick any two." Way back in the days of Xerox-speckled transparencies on overhead projectors, you put that gag on a presentation foil to lighten things up after too many foils with boring technical data. And what did the accountants do after one opened the wrong door and wandered into a technical briefing? They chopped off "Pick any two," and made the rest of it into a mantra.

So I’ll restate my dual thesis: a) If something big and technical needs to get done (Rural Electrification, Atomic Bomb, creating a whole generation of the best engineers in the world), throwing money at the job works better than doing it on the cheap. b) Parts of what gets done are going to range from unfortunate to awful, but with luck and a little common sense, the net result will be better than if you set out to achieve perfection.

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