An Age of Decline?

In 2011, I reviewed a biography of General Bernard Schriever, who led missile development activities for the US Air Force. The bio noted that Schriever and his crew had been referred to as “tomorrow’s men” in a 1957 TIME cover story, to which I commented:

In retrospect, this was true only if one defined “tomorrow” as the interval between the appearance of the article and, say, July 1969. Actually it could be argued that Schriever was a man of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the era of the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. In our current era, the execution of such projects has become difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Schreiver faced down General LeMay and Secretary Talbott..would a modern-day Schriever be able to prevail against the lilliputian army of lawyers, “community activists,” and “public interest” nonprofits who obstruct every single project of any size?

July 1969 was of course the month in which the American manned moon landing took place. A couple of months ago, Daniel Greenfield (aka Sultan Knish) marked to anniversary of the landing with one of the most depressing blog posts of the year.

No one who was born after 1935 has walked on the moon. That period is swiftly becoming a historical relic. A thing that men did who lived long ago. A great work of other times like the building of dams and fleets, the winning of wars and the expansion of frontiers. Those are things that the men of back then did. Those are not things that we do anymore…

In those long lost days, we did great things. The bureaucrats took their cut and the contractors chiseled and the lobbyists lobbied and the whole great vulture pack of government swarmed and screeched and still somehow, with a billion monkeys on our back, we moved forward, because we still had great goals. Now our goal is government. There is no longer a moon. Only a paper moon.

The whole mess of bureaucrats, contractors, lobbyists, policy experts, consultants, congressmen, aides, crooks, creeps, thieves and agents is no longer a necessary evil that we put up with in order to accomplish great things. It is the great thing that we accomplish. There are no more moon landings, no more dams or tallest buildings in the world. The massive towering edifice of our own government is now our moon landing, our Hoover Dam, our Empire State Building…

We have replaced confidence with attitude. And the difference between them is the same as the difference between a civilization and the savages outside. Confidence comes from competence. Attitude comes from rituals of pride uninformed by achievements.

Please read the whole depressing thing. And then think about it. And discuss.

Can we convince the Sultan that things are not really so bleak, that American can and will have a brilliant future?

Or do we have to admit that things are really as dark as portrayed in the post?


37 thoughts on “An Age of Decline?”

  1. Don’t ask me. A couple of times a week I drive by the spot where I once worked in the Douglas Aircraft Company’s four foot wind tunnel. There are lots of aviation companies around the area. Northrup-Grumman is at the corner of El Segundo and Sepulveda where I turn but I wonder what goes on inside.

  2. I think that we have some opportunities with private investment in space. There is a huge market for rockets, info from satellites, etc…

    NASA was ossified and lost any remaining mojo after the Challenger disaster.

    Hopefully private companies can pick up the slack and get it done.

    As far as going to the moon, maybe that happens when there is a commercially viable scheme to make it work.

  3. Schriever is famous in aerospace for refusing to hire a test manager who had boasted to him that he had never had a failure in any rocket test he had managed. Schriever responded that if he had never failed, he wasn’t pushing the envelope hard enough and he had no use for so cautious a man. I think this is one of the keys to the decline — we have become too intolerant of the failures (and the consequent losses) that go with doing anything great. After the shuttle Challenger was lost, the Air Force pushed to redline the launches to exclude the cold-weather conditions that was the immediate cause of the failure, and to continue launching the Shuttle with all Air Force crews. They pointed out that uniformed personnel were used to taking risks of that magnitude. This was turned down by NASA, who felt tat the public relations consequences of further losses would be intolerable.

  4. What hope we have of returning to space rests with the private industry. I lefr an interesting link (to me anyway) on Elon Musk – and what his company, SpaceX, is doing inside a former 747 hanger in Hawthorne.

    I think as much as Obama and ossified govt, the space shuttle was the space program’s undoing.

    It was supposed to be economical and ended up costing way over a billion a shot.

    And we put all of our eggs in that bad basket.

  5. James Bennett..When the USAF ballistic missile program had several successful launches in a row, the great aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman sent a note to Schriever: “Bennie, you must not be taking enough chances.”

  6. Extreme risk-aversion tends to be associated with risk denial. This is to some degree a function of human nature. IIRC the initial shuttles were equipped with ejection seats that were removed for later flights, I assume to increase payload capacity. Perhaps if NASA had been less driven by PR and appropriations concerns it would have been slower to remove the seats and declare the design safe for routine use. The honest thing would have been to acknowledge that it was a dangerous experimental vehicle that needed much testing, but if NASA admitted that it would have made the project a harder sell as a proven, economical cargo system. Better to rationalize the risks, push forward and hope for the best.

  7. I remember reading somewhere that NASA is studying the Saturn F1 rocket for possible use. It was the most powerful rocket ever designed.

    Still is.

    It wasn’t in the linked article, but somewhere the engineers disassembling it were amazed at – for the lack of CAD 50 years ago, the intricate craftsmanship. Wish I could have found that article because it dealt with the engineering – against huge technological challenges – and the way they solved it in those days.

    Perhaps I should write more middle age haiku in Jonathan’s post on memory retention

  8. The problem will be solved when the last lawyer is strangled with the entrails of the last environmentalist.

  9. An argument that appealed to me was that NASA was fixated on the PR effects of manned space travel. Unmanned vehicles are far more cost-effective (Voyager I is nearing the heliopause) and the cost of failures is nominal. The Mars rovers have been useful and a mission to detect microscopic life there would be incredibly important but the likelihood is small unless private spacecraft do it. Then, of course, we will be treated to propaganda about greedy capitalists.

    The fact that manned flight was considered critical for public support, not science, suggests that NASA was risk averse and too concerned with public relations.

  10. It just occurred to me that TRW was just down the street from the wind tunnel. TRW is no more. I happened to read a Wiki article on Simon Ramo and Dean Woolridge. Do we have such men around any more ? Where are they ? The Google guys and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates just seem to be another model. Will we ever see the likes of Seymour Cray again ?

    Serial number 001 was “lent” to Los Alamos in 1976, and that summer the first full system was sold to the National Center for Atmospheric Research for $8.8 million. The company’s early estimates had suggested that they might sell a dozen such machines, based on sales of similar machines from the CDC era, so the price was set accordingly. Eventually, well over 80 Cray-1s were sold, and the company was a huge success financially. The solitary entrepreneur is in big trouble in Obama’s America.

    Cray personified that. Ramo got double PhDs from Cal Tech in Physics and EE. Ramo turned 100 in May.

  11. Two worthwhile books which deal with the rise and decline of societies: the Introduction to History by the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1377), and Antoine de St-Exupery’s novel of ideas Citadelle (published in English under the unfortunate title Wisdom of the Sands)…I’m pretty sure the St-Ex book was heavily influenced by the Khaldun book.

    Some excerpts from Ibn Khaldun here:

  12. There’s a price to be paid to be great.

    America is not in decline, it’s hostile parasitic elites are dying.

    These are not synonymous.

    America has far too many natural advantages.

    This will not be without Trial. Or pain.

    If the worms in our guts are not passed they can indeed kill the host, we must pass them or die.

  13. Gates and Jobs were pioneers in the PC world. Both of them got the whole GUI from Xerox PARC where the PC revolution really began. Bill Gates was a real entrepreneur but his ideas for DOS 1.0 came from CPM, which was developed by Gary Kildall, who was out flying when the IBM guys came by and wanted him to sign a NDA before they would tell him what they wanted.

    I give Gates all the credit for recognizing the opportunity and running with it.

    Steve Jobs was a visionary although Steve Wozniak built the Apple I and II and used the knowledge he gained from building “blue boxes” to trick telephone operators into giving free long distance calls.

    In 1976 Wozniak developed the computer that eventually made him famous. By himself he designed the hardware, circuit board designs, and operating system for the Apple I.[9] With the Apple I design, he and Jobs were largely working to impress other members of the Palo Alto-based Homebrew Computer Club, a local group of electronics hobbyists interested in computing. The Club was one of several key centers which established the home hobbyist era, essentially creating the microcomputer industry over several years. Unlike other Homebrew designs, the Apple had an easy-to-achieve video capability that drew a crowd when it was unveiled.[9]

    The guys who really did the basic stuff were the guys at PARC ( there are two books about it, one good called Fumbling the Future) and the other by Michael Hiltzik which is full of anti-capitalism rants).

    Simon Ramo and, to some degree, Woolridge were real geniuses.

    From 1936 until 1946 he led electronics research at General Electric. He became globally recognized as a leader in Microwave research and headed the development of GE’s Electron microscope. He also published textbooks on Fields and Waves in Modern Radio (1944) and Introduction to Microwaves (1945).

    In 1946 he returned to California to become director of research for the electronics department of Hughes Aircraft, and his career became coupled with that of Dean Wooldridge. Together they formed a successful team for many years, with Wooldridge concentrating on investment and general business aspects while Ramo led research, development and engineering. By 1948, Hughes had created its Aerospace Group to work with the newly created U.S. Air Force. Dr. Ramo became a Vice-President and the Group’s Director of Operations. Ramo employed his skills in Systems Engineering to allow Hughes to deliver integrated RADAR and aircraft fire-control systems. He developed the air-to-air missile, creating the Falcon missile.

    By 1953 both Ramo and the Air Force had become increasingly frustrated with management problems at Hughes. Ramo and Wooldridge were particularly concerned when Howard Hughes avoided their attempts to discuss the problem. In September they jointly resigned, and within a week they formed the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation on September 16, 1953.

    In October 1953 an Assistant Secretary of Defense, Trevor Gardner, created a committee to consider the future of guided missiles. This Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee (SMEC) was headed by John von Neumann and included both Ramo and Wooldridge. In four months, the committee produced their report and recommended that a crash program was needed to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that such a program might enable the United States to overtake Russian developments by 1959-1960.

    The Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. became the lead contractor for the resulting Air Force program. With Dr. Ramo as the driving scientific and engineering officer, they succeeded. In 1958, an Atlas Rocket delivered a payload 5,000 miles downrange. The Atlas would go on to serve as the launch vehicle for NASA’s Project Mercury orbital flights, starting with John Glenn in Friendship 7. USAF General Bernard Schriever, head of the ICBM program, described Ramo as “the architect of the Thor, Atlas, and Titan” rockets.
    According to a July 30, 2002 article by Peter Pae, Los Angeles Times aerospace staff writer, Ramo’s comments are legendary for capsulizing complex ideas into off-the-cuff witticisms.

    These guys and Cray were certified geniuses. They were a little bit more practical than Johnny Von Neuman or Richard Feynmann but not much. They were interested in application than theory.

    I will go to my grave regretting that I wasn’t at Cal Tech when Feymann was there. I would have been class of 1960 but didn’t have the money for tuition and my scholarship didn’t come through.

  14. I’ve been reading about the so-called “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration, when, as Kim Stanley Robinson put it, “They set out to conquer the Antarctic with bad Boy Scout equipment.” The excuse was Science, but a lot of the push came from fear that the English, having run out of habitable countries to add to the Empire, had become soft and effete.

    I think (hope) that our current initiative-strangling bureaucracy is merely a parasitic growth on the culture that we will ultimately be able to shed, disassemble,kill,and bury with a stake through its heart.

    And then we will set out to explore the solar system with what our descendents will call, “bad Boy Scout equipment.”

  15. Thanks, Michael.

    According to the Schriever bio, the reason Ramo got his job at GE in preference to another candidate was that he was an excellent violinist…and the Schenectady symphony orchestra needed one badly at the time!

    I actually think the climate for startups is considerably more positive than it was in the 50s. There is much more of a venture capital and angel investment infrastructure to provide funding, and the culture has changed such that trying and failing with a startup isn’t necessarily poison to one’s whole future career. OTOH, a disproportionate share of the activity has been in information technology, especially social media, largely because there is a lower regulatory burden than there is with products that have a higher *physical* profile.

  16. Re Xerox PARC: this demonstrates the fact that *innovation* requires more than just “R&D.”

    If Xerox PARC had been organized not as a research facility but as a trie internal venture, run by the right kind of general manager and with a few cunning salespeople attached to it, then the history of the computer industry would likely have been very different.

  17. Xerox told the guys at PARC to quit messing around with impractical things like the laser printer, ethernet and the GUI and get back to copiers. The STAR PC even had a mouse.

  18. PARC is the story of so many brilliant things going to waste for bad vision. The story I heard about Gates was that IBM originally went to him to get his BASIC interpreter – and when asked who made a good OS, Gates pointed them to Gary Kildal, whose CP/M was the dominant OS in those early days.

    The IBM reps go to Monterey and Kildal is either out flying or sailing – anyway, he is out of the office and the IBM reps asked his wife to sign a non-disclosure agreement for what they were about to tell her/him.

    She was afraid to and unable to reach Kildal, IBM went back to Gates.

    Gates knew of an OS sold by a company catering to hobbyists – Seattle Computer Products – made an OS called QDOS – for quick & dirty operating system – and Gates – telling IBM he could provide an OS – was able to buy the rights to this which became the basis of DOS. (I think QDOS was based on CP/M)

    So Gates recognized a huge opportunity when it was presented to him and Xerox had so much for the future but for short-sighted managers. The old business story of the 1800’s railroads thinking of themselves as railroads and not transportation companies.

    Talk about dumb moves in hindsight – IBM essentially made Microsoft the multi billion company and asked for no stock – again, short sightedness on IBMs part. Today they are out of the PC business.

    As an aside about Wooldridge I was friends with his son when we were very young (I’m talking pre-school in LA).

    But those were heady days – sad that TRW is no more.

  19. BTW Mike – on the laser printer and HP – that development was almost hidden – developed by I think its Boise division – and shrewdly marketed by someone at HP to the point it became a huge part of their business.

    They did not originally envision the desk laser printer to become such a big part of their business – such is innovation – but without visionary people to exploit it is just ideas….

    Too many managers today lack that vision I think – MBAs coming out of business schools like cookie cutters

  20. The internet was largely built since ’93, with an enormous bandwidth. That’s a bigger and more consequential achievement than a moon landing. Also, GPS – same story.

    The advances of the past 20 years haven’t been big, visible things such as moon rockets or dams (save for the Chinese one, of course), but micro things whose material part is largely removed from our ability to sense. Materials science does enormous things at a level too micro for a microscope. Electronics performance happens in tiny chips. Genetics and biochemistry advances are huge as well.

    I understand the blog post here was written with a “pro small government” mind set (I’m a “good governance” guy, don’t care about “small” or “big”), but its decisive flaw is that it overlooks the great achievements of the last generation. These achievements were indeed helped a lot by government investments (GPS satellites, late 90’s push for internet highway infrastructure).

  21. SO…I’m pretty familiar with the history of the Internet and also GPS. Government, in the form of ARPA, did indeed fund the initial research that led to the Internet; I’m not sure what you are referring to by “late 90s push for internet highway infrastructure.” Virtually ALL of the Internet expansion of the mid-to-late 90s was designed and funded by private corporations, both fairly new Internet Service Providers (PSINet, ANS, UUNET), specialized web hosting companies (Digex, Exodus, etc), and traditional telecoms, not to mention suppliers to the above such as Cisco.

    You are correct that many of the achievements of the last couple of decades are less *visible* than earlier achievement such as, say, the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, and the space program, but bear in mind that these less-tangible achievements rest on the back of, and are quite dependent upon, things that are indeed tangible. The “cloud” is not really something that exists off in a mystical cyberspace, it is provided by very tangible servers that use very considerable amounts of electricity–not in itself visible, but coming from very physical power plants and transmitted over very physical (and, to many people, very objectionable) power lines.

  22. One of the biggest developments of the past 30 years was pioneered by a guy named Carl Woese who discovered an entire new kingdom of life called Archea. They were originally called “Archeabactria” but it was later recognized that they are not bacteria. If we finally get around to it, they will probably be found under the soil of Mars.

    The study of “ Extremophiles will not only explain much of the story of evolution but may solve the energy problem and many others one day. Carl Woese is unknown to almost everyone outside biology but he was a great scientist. He just died this year.

    The internet is a great expansion of a few ideas that were related to DARPA and the search for more robust systems, something that has been ignored in our power grid.

  23. A comment re: Xerox & laser printing.

    In the late 1970’s the IBM machine that I admin’d had a Xerox 1200{memory?} attached that was used to print thousands of pages daily.
    It was a laser printer putting out about 60 pages a minute.
    I cannot remember for sure, but I think an upgraded printer came in later(post 1978) that was faster and had a better duplexer. It had a programming language to control the printer, add headers & footers, gray-bar, and a whole lot of other features. I think a ‘print tape’ could be hung on the drive, and the printer run off-line from the mainframe using print control parameters stored on a hard drive.
    Xerox had the laser printer market, but not the PC printer market that HP found, explored, and exploited so well.
    Memory also says Xerox had an outstanding line of mainframe level computers that were poorly marketed, and then discontinued one day with no notice.
    Sorry if this is too far off topic.

  24. Xerox had a bunch of good things but they never quite figured it out. Peter Drucker could probably have helped them a lot if they had asked.

  25. The “PARC” in Xerox PARC was later said to stand for “Pre-Apple Research Center”.

    The ejection seats in the Shuttle were taken out because they were basically useless in all but a tiny percentage of potential disaster scenarios.

    As for the relative merits of manned and unmanned flights — it depends on what your objective is for spaceflight. If it is the human settlement of space, unmanned flight is rather useless in that regard, except for initial reconnaissance.

  26. You are broke. You need big bucks to go to space, the Chinese are on their way.

    You are the poor fools who spent all their money on war toys instead of explore toys. Not real smart.

  27. When I go back and read of some of the early Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) prototype design for nuclear power reactors, I am completely amazed at their innovation…and risk-taking.

    One dead end design was a small hollow sphere of tantalum, partially filled with a solution of plutonium salts in nitric acid. Fill it to a certain level and it goes critical, making power, which you extract by pumping the hot plutonium solution through a heat exchanger.

    Yea Gods, would that design have been fun to work on!

    Today, such an adventure would be unthinkable and illegal.

  28. “The ejection seats in the Shuttle were taken out because they were basically useless in all but a tiny percentage of potential disaster scenarios.”

    They might have saved the Challenger crew. The other shuttle loss was at reentry speed and they would not have helped.

  29. We are risk averse because we are deathly afraid of death.

    We are deathly afraid of death because we lack the spiritual core that used to be given us by religion.

  30. Vader…that was one of the themes that Arthur Koestler developed in his 1950 novel The Age of Longing, which I reviewed here. In one passage, the French security officer Jules Commanche, a former Resistance fighter, speaks as follows to the American girl Hydie:

    You cannot cure aberrations of the political libido by arguments…Now the source of all political libido is faith, and its object is the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Lost Paradise, Utopia, what have you. Therefore each time a god dies there is trouble in History. People feel that they have been cheated by his promises, left with a dud check in their pocket. The last time a god died was on July 14, 1789, the day when the Bastille was stormed. On that day the Holy Trinity was replaced by the three-word slogan which you find written over our town halls and post offices. Europe has not yet recovered from that operation, and all our troubles today are secondary complications. The People–and when I use that word, Mademoiselle, I always refer to people who have no bank accounts–the people have been deprived of their only asset: the knowledge, or the illusion, whichever you like, of having an immortal soul. Their faith is dead, their kingdom is dead, only the longing remains. And this longing, Mademoiselle, can express itself in beautiful or murderous forms, just like the frustrated sex instinct…Only the longing remains–a dumb, inarticulate longing of the instinct, without knowledge of its source and object. So the people, the masses, mill around with that irksome feeling of having an uncashed check in their pockets and whoever tells them ‘Oyez, oyez, the Kingdom is just round the corner, in the second street to the left,’ can do with them what he likes.

    As I noted in the review, I think I disagree with Commanche/Koestler that loss of belief in personal immortality is of the essence here. Indeed, Koestler’s character Fedya–a committed Russian Communist–is an atheist, but his faith is strong. Indeed, Hydie falls in lust (maybe love as well, but definitely lust) with him specifically because he projects a kind of belief and confidence that she cannot find in American or European more. What matters more (from a societal standpoint) is the belief in the society’s moral authority, in its future, in its system of symbols. And it is specifically these things that have been systematically undermined by so many forces in our society and especially in academia. (When people with PhD’s are willing to accept the idea that gravity is a “social construct”–see The Sokal Hoax–is it any wonder that many ordinary people feel disoriented?)

  31. The ejector seats on the Columbia’s first four mission were only fitted to the pilot and co-pilots stations which were located below observation windows. Which was fine on the two man test flights. However, starting with STS-5 mission when the orbiter became operational you couldn’t fit additional ejector seats to the other crew positions, especially the three or four members located on the mid deck.

    I’m including a link to the Wikipedia article on the subject, which includes a quote from astronaut Robert Crippen on his opinion of the ejector seats.

  32. Until I saw this – – I didn’t think the speed of sound had a factor in ejection – but the wind at such speeds – will break every bone in you – was interested reading that the SR-71 had ejection seats – I know of one pilot ejecting in a test prototype – but not at high speeds I would think –

    Still, I remember reading that the drew of the Challenger was alive as their Shuttle was plunging to the sea – that had to be a terrifying last few seconds

  33. We are in an era of smog and mist. We all have enough computing power to oversee government but we do not devote the resources to do it. I do not know why. When government systems are documented and measured as well as private systems, we will be able to reduce what is bad and improve what remains.

  34. “However, starting with STS-5 mission when the orbiter became operational you couldn’t fit additional ejector seats to the other crew positions, especially the three or four members located on the mid deck.”

    It would have to be a capsule. The Mercury capsules, as I recall, had a system that would launch the capsule to a parachute trajectory in case of a launch abort. The Challenger could have had a capsule design but didn’t. Videos of the failure show that the capsule-like cabin remained intact and could have had a rescue system. Re-entry was not an option for survival but launch was.

    The recent near-space parachute stunt gives an idea of what could be done.

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