I remember the first time I watched Star Wars with my parents. I must have been around 6, and apart from being slightly scared I was simply awed by the experience. I don’t remember what I thought of the plot, but I vividly remember how I felt seeing the spaceships. Humans visiting foreign planets and exploring the universe was not something I had considered before.
From that day I wanted to become an astronaut. I watched every science fiction movie my parents would allow, and devoured books about the first moon landing or our solar system. Clearly, I’d be the first human to visit a new planet. Maybe not Mars – that would have been done by the time I grew up – but maybe Saturn (the rings are awesome) or Uranus (that one always seemed mysterious to me). It took a few years before I began to understand that the first moon landing had been in 1969 and the last person to walk on the moon did so in 1972. Within a span of three years, we had achieved what seemed unimaginable and abruptly ended the most exciting period of human exploration to date.
Mankind has continued to explore in the years since – we now regularly send people to the International Space System. Up until recently the only spacecraft able to do so was the Russian Soyuz, developed in the 1960s. We have also sent a rover to Mars, giving us the first glimpse of its surface, but never again have we dared to dream about human exploration – too dangerous, too expensive and too difficult. Besides, we have so many problems on earth that need our attention.
Boeing is one of only two major global aircraft manufacturers and has a long and storied history. In 2018 and 2019 two of its new 737Max crashed, killing 346 people in the process and starting the longest grounding of a new “state-of-the-art” plane ever experienced.
From a manufacturing perspective the 737Max was a disaster, needing computer systems just to keep it stable in the air. It was the plane that never should-have-been, only coming into production because it was cheaper to slightly alter the existing design rather than develop a new aircraft from scratch. The result was a slightly prolongated fuselage and larger turbines for increased fuel efficiency. The somewhat significant drawback was that these larger turbines would have scraped the runway during take-off, so in response the company changed the position of the wings – further up and forward. It was this that led to the destabilisation of the plane while flying. There are now a litany of internal emails, documenting each step and each failure that ultimately led to the disaster. What is missing though, is an understanding of how a great engineering and manufacturing company became a victim to design-through-spreadsheets.
It is telling that the 707, which had its first flight in 1957, would cruise at speeds of 977 kilometres per hour, while the modern 737Max can only reach 839 km/h, to say nothing of its more obvious failures. Meanwhile the Concorde, having had its maiden flight in the same year as the first moon landing, was retired in 2003. We have spent billions of dollars and over 60 years, only to succeed in slowing down flights.
Travel has become cheaper, safer, better for the environment, but also slower, more boring and less ambitious.
In 2011 a magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, had catastrophic consequences for a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. While around 18,500 people died from the earthquake and tsunami, radiation has, officially, claimed just one victim since. Consequently, Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power plants by 2022, resulting in a significant increase in coal generation capacity. A recent paper, aptly named “The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out”, estimates the result at 1,100 lives lost and $12bn in additional costs per year due to the early shutdowns. Coal is significantly more dangerous, to say nothing about the environmental impact. It is telling that we are not having a public discussion about the trade-offs. We exaggerate the threats of nuclear power and minimise its benefits, all while one billion people still don’t have access to electricity and three billion don’t have clean fuels for cooking, coming at the high cost of indoor air pollution.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but a global public backlash against the technology without proper understanding of the science, resulting in political pushback and declining Research and Development spend, has led to an industry still relying on designs from the 1970s. Only slowly are we seeing the first signs of much-needed progress, often outside of the purview of the public to avoid the suffocation of a once-again infant industry.
The Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 after only 793 days and at a cost of $40 million in 2019 dollars. It became the tallest building in the world, a title it held for more than 40 years.
The Empire State Building was completed in 1931, after only 410 days. It cost around $560 million in 2019 dollars.
The first contract for the New York subway was awarded in 1900. After little more than four years, 28 stations opened across the city and operations began in 1904. This was done at a cost of around $100 million per kilometre in 2019 dollars. In contrast, when construction of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway began in 2000, nobody could have imagined it would take 17 years for the three stations to open, much less that it would come at a cost of $2.2 billion per kilometre.
The Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, was finished ahead of schedule after a three-year period in 1936 and at a cost of about $1.3 billion in today’s dollars. When, following the 1989 earthquake, officials decided to rebuild the bridge, the initial budget was for $250 million. A slight estimation error of 2,500% and 24 years later, the project finished in 2013 after 11 years of construction for a total cost of $6.5 billion.
In the wake of Brexit, Berlin managed to land a coup – Tesla was planning to build a Gigafactory just outside the city. Even though construction has now restarted, for a short while it was halted over protests by environmentalists calling themselves the “tree pirates” and the Tesla vehicles “Snob cars which kill people”. The cause was to protect a few artificially planted trees, even though Tesla has vowed to replant at least three times the amount near the factory.
We have given veto rights to too many people and now live with the consequences. Progress has slowed and costs have skyrocketed.
It is striking that surveys in developed countries confirm again and again that people are pessimistic about their future. An Ipsos poll in 2017 showed that only 25% of the UK population was optimistic about an improvement in living conditions over a 15-year period, while 59% expected no improvement or even decline. Results for many other European countries were even worse.
While technological advancement appears to accelerate in the domain of software, hardware has scarcely changed over the last 50 years. The world today is still recognisably the same world our grandparents grew up in and, consequently, we have no problems navigating it.
As American entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, famously quipped: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. We have lost our imagination of what the future can be and instead we are bickering about the present, focussing on redistribution and unfairness, and allowing cancel-culture and #Metoo to expand into all areas of society. We are jealous of the life others live on their Instagram accounts and spend our evenings fighting meaningless battles on Twitter.
It is perhaps a sign of our times that these stories do not get more public attention, but despite all my commentary to the opposite, I am now optimistic for the first time in a while.
More and more founders are working on real and exciting problems in physical sciences. SpaceX, and others, have shown that space exploration can be both profitable and exciting. Musk has stated his ambitious goal of the first cargo mission to Mars in 2022, with a human colony to follow by 2030. Just maybe we will get to experience mankind once again reaching for the stars during our lifetime. A retirement home on Mars certainly sounds more exciting than those on earth.
Meanwhile a company called Boom is developing a super-sonic plane to shorten commutes between our cities. This will be expensive at first, but all new technology is. Once we commercialise it, the way we think about travel will change materially. Nothing brings people together like physical interaction – made more difficult if the average cruise speed of planes is declining.
The availability of power is one of the best predictors for economic growth. One in seven people still don’t have reliable access, but finally we are working to change that. TerraPower, and many companies like it, are developing new nuclear reactors. Significantly cheaper, able to use up larger amounts of radioactive waste and safer than ever before, they hold the promise of delivering energy to the often neglected and will help us reduce our addiction to coal and gas generation. If we really want to save the climate, pinning our hopes on renewable energy simply isn’t enough.
Maybe it’s time that we recognise once again, that the real enemy isn’t the person across the street with diverging views from ours. We can “take back control” and “make America great again”, but this only locks us into a zero-sum game with temporary winners at best. As any calculator will quickly confirm, a two percent increase in our growth rate leads to an economy that is more than seven times larger in a hundred years, or about three generations. How many of today’s perceived problems would disappear if that was the future we were to achieve? Maybe it’s time that we recognise stagnation as the real enemy and once again learn to aim for the stars.