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James M. Gentile

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Innovations In Space Technology Are Still Key

Posted: 09/07/11 02:02 PM ET

It's been a tough summer for space technology -- both for exploring space and for harnessing its resources. Yet innovation in space technology is still key to U.S. scientific and economic preeminence; space has been primarily America's frontier for 50 years and should remain so.

In July, NASA's 135th space shuttle mission was successfully completed, ending the shuttle program and leaving America, for the first time since 1962, without the capacity to put a man or woman in space -- and reliant instead on private-sector initiatives. In early September, an unmanned spaceship funded by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, had to be destroyed during a test flight. As the spacecraft's developer, Blue Origin, stated, "Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard..."

At the same time, the U.S. solar energy industry is suffering its own setbacks. Three American solar power companies have filed for bankruptcy in the past month: Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts, SpectraWatt in New York, and Solyndra in California. Solyndra alone had received $527 million in federal loans, which will renew debate about the value of such subsidies even in an environment of global competition in which China's solar power industry now has more than half of the world's production capacity.

But the challenge of innovation and of scientific inquiry is not to be defeated by failure but to learn from it. In science, following leads that turn out to be wrong is an essential part of the process of discovery. The United States needs to adopt that premise, as it continues to pursue scientific preeminence in the face of greater competition than ever. Our future depends on it.

That future in space has bright spots as well, and reassuringly Opportunity is literally enabled by Endeavour. Just last week NASA's Mars rover Opportunity -- while exploring a crater called Endeavour -- revealed a rock that, in the words of The New York Times, "has already opened a new chapter in the study of Mars." As the San Francisco Chronicle reports: "Steve Squyres, a Cornell astronomer and the rover's chief scientist, said Thursday that the rugged rock is a form of breccia, jumbled fragments of minerals cemented together and apparently thrown up from beneath the planet's surface by some monstrous impact that happened millions - or perhaps billions - of years ago. 'This rock doesn't look like anything we've ever seen on Mars,' Squyres said. 'It contains much more zinc and bromine than we've ever seen - clues that we may be dealing with a hydrothermal system here on Mars.' A hydrothermal system could mean that the edge of the Endeavour crater contains fresh evidence that at one time hot water may have emerged from beneath the Martian surface and moved the rock around."

It's worth noting that this discovery was made in Opportunity's seventh year on Mars -- not a quick discovery but one that continues to offer hope, knowledge, and inspiration for us all. According to the Chronicle: "John Callas, the rover mission's chief engineer, said...that Opportunity is capable of continuing its mission indefinitely. 'We have some arthritis in one steering arm,' he said, 'and a bit of paralysis in the neurological system, but our cholesterol level is excellent.'"

America must press on regardless, and that means celebrating discoveries in space, accepting failure as part of growth, recognizing that risk is essential to innovation, and engendering the same enthusiasm for space-related discoveries that the U.S. space program had in its infancy.

In that connection, I was delighted to see recently a new, animated, children's video created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and FableVision. Written and illustrated by award-winning children's author and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds, the video "Above & Beyond" tells the story of a boy and a girl who compete in the Going Places Contest but think for themselves rather than simply follow the directions. They win the competition by building an airplane instead of the presumed go-cart and, in doing so, underscore the educational benefits of the 4Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

Those 4Cs are more crucial than ever to scientific and space-related discovery at a time when rapidly expanding teams of experts from various fields are increasingly essential to the next wave of innovations that will fuel American leadership and our national economy. Those 4Cs are precisely what Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead, seeks to promote through Scialog, the multi-year grant-making program that brings together scientists from America's leading research universities to explore innovations in solar energy conversion.

Those Scialog scientists will convene next month at Biosphere 2 in Arizona, continuing the process of transformational discovery in solar power. They will discuss, review, hypothesize, and share insights as they learn from one another and from their successes as well as their failures.

They will teach us all that the debate about federal funding of scientific research should never hinge on a success or a failure - that the goal is not financial return but discovery, knowledge, and leadership. Those goals cannot be quantified, yet the economic return that they generate is truly out of this world.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation, and the first devoted wholly to science.