Neil Armstrong was a Data Guy

Armstrong Loved Data

I read an extremely disappointing article this weekend about the slow dissolution of the U.S. Astronaut corps that is occurring with the de-funding of the manned spaceflight program at NASA. In a nutshell, the article stated that the best and brightest members of our space program were slowly being “let go” as their prospects of ever getting into space dwindled.

Call me a geek, but the fact that for the first time since I was born, there are no significant plans to put men in space for the next few decades, by the only country that has landed a man on the moon, is downright depressing. Ever since I was a kid, launching rockets in my backyard, using endless reams of my Dad’s used printer paper to draw new spaceships and debating the speed of the Millennium Falcon vs. the USS Enterprise, the thought of conquering space was an inspiration that gave a vision of the world in which there were no limits. And, like the U.S. Hockey victory in Lake Placid, it also helped calm my fears that we would not wake up in the “Red Dawn” world the media was hyping during the 80’s Second Cold War.

But, beyond my own personal “spaceboy” dreams and “Rah-rah USA” enthusiasm, there is a deeper, more disturbing impact that I believe the lack of enthusiasm for human spaceflight in this country will have.  Namely, a continued, marked decline in math and science interest among the next generation of future business leaders. It has become increasingly clear that analytics skills and data driven decision making are becoming core to almost every industry. From advertising to ecology, data is playing a role in how things are built, distributed, marketed, and maintained. Whether it is an ipod or the environment, math and science make it work.

Politicians and economists will posit that the investment in human spaceflight doesn’t yield the “bottom line” impact of other scientific endeavors. And initially on paper, they may seem right. But they aren’t factoring a huge variable that is somewhat intangible, but that those of us in the ad business know as “branding”.  In the same way that a Coke is “more” than brown, carbonated, sugar water, the impact of human space exploration goes well beyond the technical advancements in computing, medicine and aeronautics that the space program has created.

Put quite simply, astronauts are the physical embodiment of what great science and math education can lead to. Only one in 20M kids can become an astronaut in this country, but the vision and inspiration that these few men and women provide have filled the math and science programs in top Universities and driven entrepreneurs to build companies that have massive impacts on our life.  It’s not just conjecture. Maybe you have heard of a few guys that started a little search company, or that fellow who runs that small software concern. All self-proclaimed “space nerds” growing up.  Where will the next generation of business tech leaders get their inspiration? Videogames? Somehow I don’t see Halo inspiring anyone to do much other than blow up mutants.

The manned program is a small investment (NASA’s overall budget makes up less than .6% of the U.S. budget) with a huge impact. It has not only helped keep math and science on young people’s minds, but also been instrumental in creating a generation of tech entrepreneurs who have been one of the few bright lights in our recent economic malaise. Ignoring the ripple effect of the manned program is akin to shutting off this bright light and dampening the intellectual enthusiasm of tomorrow’s crop of dreamers – whether or not they make it into space.

So, the next time you leverage that young analytics guru to help optimize a campaign or enhance the algorithm in your SEO strategy to help drive new customers, thank an Astronaut. You may not have an opportunity to do either for very long.

NOTE: A much better written (and somewhat spiritual) treatise on this subject can be found in the book  The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity by Wyn Wachorst. I highly recommend it.

One Response to Neil Armstrong was a Data Guy

  1. kerry morris says:

    Good points. NASA has filed over 6,000 patents, and inspired a generation of dreamers and innovators.
    Sometimes getting to the stars isn’t the point, it’s all the really cool things you find along the way. @wkmorris

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