What made America great?

I've been thinking about the best way to answer that question for over a week, ever since Fool Eric Bleeker had the audacity to write an article about how America got its groove back.

It takes a certain audacity to have hope for America these days. This is a country that has never been less trustful of its government, with the very slimmest of minorities now believing that its leaders pose an immediate threat to their rights and freedoms. Only 28% of America's citizens believe their country is headed in the right direction. America might have been great once, but with structural problems across the socioeconomic spectrum, it certainly isn't great any more.


I didn't know how to respond to Eric's optimism. Then this happened:

This is the first real image sent back to Earth from the Mars Curiosity Rover. It was broadcast to the world through Twitter. It trailed by seconds the handle's, ah, handler announcing successful landing with one of the most overused Twitter memes ever created:

 


What made America great? This was it. For a minute, it seemed that the past tense was unsuitable when evidence of our most valuable qualities were broadcast in real time, arriving seven minutes later over a distance of 350 million miles. It was a nice moment, but I couldn't stay in the present. We've done this before -- three times before, in fact.

"I AM IN YOU" is no "giant leap for mankind," and a 1-ton robotic rover named Curiosity isn't quite the same as the 12 curious men who put bootprints on the moon. The Curiosity landing is a great scientific achievement, and at a cost of $2.5 billion, only sets the nation back about half an aircraft carrier. It's also far less expensive than the Apollo program, which set the country back by $131 billion when adjusted for inflation. So what's the difference? In another 40 years, will the developments that made Curiosity possible find their way into the smallest corners of our lives? Probably not.

Some of the technologies underpinning our modern lifestyle were first used to help Apollo astronauts get to the moon and back. A number of others were developed in various government research programs and later commercialized. Whatever you used to read this article is the ultimate result of a government that wanted to do something that had never been done before.

The Apollo Guidance Computer's use of Fairchild Semiconductor's (NYS: FCS) integrated circuits was the world's first attempt to put the technology into action, and it predated Intel's (NAS: INTC) founding by two years. The reasons Intel ultimately became known for this innovation while its creators faded into obscurity aren't important. Without government support, there might be no Intel at all.

I first thought I'd express the outcome of this early support in terms of the technology industry's contribution to America's GDP. But technology isn't just a part of the economy -- it is the economy. Find me an industry that hasn't been improved by the technological outgrowth of the integrated circuit and you'll have found one that's not long for this world. Real per-capita GDP has more than doubled in the United States since the year the Apollo Guidance Computer was created.

Are our lives better? For the vast majority of us, the answer is undoubtedly yes. But the country as a whole has little faith that the government can shepherd any further technological transformations. Fewer than half of Americans surveyed in a Research America poll believe that America will be the global leader in science and technology by 2020.

We're not even sure what we want the government to do when it comes to funding research and development. A majority of Americans prefer lower taxes for fewer services and a majority also supports funding the space program at current or higher levels. Similar majorities support a less-powerful and less-regulatory government at the same time as one that also actively directs our economy away from fossil fuels.

Some government-supported technologies are still inching toward true mass adoption. Solar power also saw its first real test run during the space race, and continues to see substantial government support, but every time the name "Solyndra" comes up, certain lawmakers start foaming at the mouth. The Human Genome Project wrapped up in 2003, and its $3.8 billion budget might ultimately have one of the best returns on investment of any research program since Apollo. Both will have far-reaching consequences that we don't yet fully understand, and yet neither had the same ambitious scope as the space race.

So what we come to at last is this: America was great and can be great again. It won't be because our technology companies found new ways to apply known technologies to squeeze more money out of the same problems. That's what good, efficient companies are supposed to do. Good, efficient companies don't go to Mars -- there's no profit in it. But there may well be substantial profit, for American business and for American society, in figuring out how to make it happen.

Sending a robotic rover to Mars is anything but easy, but it's also taking the easy way out. NASA's budget peaked at under 5% of total federal spending in 1966, the year the Apollo Guidance Computer was built. It now takes up less than half a percent of the federal budget. Federal research and development funding as a percentage of America's GDP has moved gradually lower since that year as well, replaced by tax credits to qualified industry research programs.

Why not have a moon-shot, or rather a Mars-shot? If it's more and better knowledge we want, Apollo's legacy shows us what's possible. The moon rocks brought back to Earth continue to result in new scientific publications year after year, and all unmanned extraterrestrial missions have provided sparse research by comparison. If it's revolutionary technology we want, well, it's already happened once.

I don't agree with everything America does, but there's one thing that's made it great before that seems missing now --  a real commitment to going beyond what's possible. Curiosity's creators should be praised for their success, but I'm sure many of them would like nothing more than to see human bootprints on Martian soil. I have no idea what consumer technology might one day result from a manned Mars mission, but the costs would almost certainly be well worth it in the long run.

The article How America Could Get Its Groove Back originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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