WPSU

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sputnik Moment

When we visited Manitowoc, Wisconsin this past August we noticed a downtown storefront decorated with space aliens and a sign for "Sputnikfest."

Is it really no coincidence that President Obama visits Manitowoc today after talking about a "Sputnik moment" in his State of the Union speech yesterday?  The remains of a Sputnik satellite crashed in downtown Manitowoc in September 1962. (The town turned the anniversary of the event into a festival featuring--curiously--space aliens).


On his trip to Manitowoc the President is visiting places like Orion Energy Systems, which makes energy- efficient lighting, and Tower Tech, a wind turbine manufacturer that opened in 2003 and now employs 300.

In his speech last night the President announced he would cut subsidies for oil and gas companies and use the money to finance investment in renewable energy technologies--including, in that category, nuclear power, natural gas, and "clean coal."  He also spoke of funding for high speed rail . . .  and of putting a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

Realistically, Congress will have a hard time scaring up funding for high speed rail.  Aa million electric cars amounts to less than one percent of all the cars in the nation--not to mention, if the power these vehicles use comes from plants burning coal, you're not reducing emissions, just moving them around.  And" clean coal" is, at the moment, an oxymoron (though I don't put it beyond the reach of American ingenuity to accomplish).

Meanwhile, I think it's great to put the spotlight on companies like Orion, creating technologies that conserve resources, and Tower Tech, showing that the Chinese haven't cornered the market on alternative energy technology manufacturing.

Now about that old-fashioned American ingenuity. According to the "Nation's Report Card," released the same day as the President's address, not even a third of all American students currently reach grade-level proficiency in science.

When the 20-pound blob of molten metal (all that remained of Sputnik IV) embedded itself near the median of a downtown street, police officers at first thought it was slag from a dump truck and kicked it to the curb.  Seven hours later, they put two and two together (the projected crash of the satellite was in the news) and returned to collect the historic space trash.

The government can fund initiatives, but you need creative minds to take those funds and build something that works. Let's hope, when the money comes through the pipeline, we have the human power to make something of it . . . not kick it to the curb.




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