The Martian Farm Act

Matt Damon’s role in The Martian perfectly combines two of the greatest government investments in the economy. His character, Mark Watney, is a botanist-astronaut who must “science the shit” out of his predicament. Left alone on Mars, he sustains himself by growing potatoes on the barren soil. Watney can thank the nineteenth-century Morrill Acts for the know-how behind the sciencing. Farmers in general, and all Americans, can thank the Hatch Act of 1887 for spreading that know-how across the land. (Earth, that is. Mars comes later.)

The Morrill Acts established the land-grant university system by giving federal land to states, which then sold the properties to endow colleges. The law required these colleges to teach a mix of liberal and practical arts, including agriculture, science, military science, and engineering. Thanks to the Morrill Acts, well-endowed public institutions were able to train and hire leading agricultural researchers. The Hatch Act ensured that this science spread to the nation’s farmers. It established agricultural experiment stations affiliated with the land-grant colleges; a later law, passed early in the twentieth century, created cooperative extension services in every county to bring innovations directly to farmers. The combination of intelligent law and strategic investment helped turn America into the world’s food powerhouse, with a trade surplus since 1960—$39 billion in 2014 alone.

Our success in agriculture offers a critical economic lesson. In “sciencing” farms, the government sparked unprecedented growth in an essential sector. The Agriculture Department did not merely fix a market failure, as Keynesians would have it. Nor did it step aside and wait for American farmers to manage entirely on their own. Government enabled farmers to innovate on their own, and to share that knowledge widely. The resulting science-based agricultural network would eventually help feed the world.

It should come as no surprise that the government used a comparable model to help create the aerospace economy. Although the Wright brothers managed to fly the first airplane in 1903, it was the Europeans who rapidly seized on their invention. Planes superior to that of the Wrights flew in France and Denmark in 1906. Three years later, a Frenchman flew across the English Channel. More alarmingly, in 1911 Italy became the first nation to launch military planes for reconnaissance, during its war with Libya.

In fact, it was war that stimulated Congress to take action. Early in World War I, in 1915, Congress funded NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. (See Chapter Three.) Just as Congress had funded pioneering agricultural research in the previous century, now it turned to institutionalizing discovery and invention in human flight. In 1917, the committee built its first laboratory, Langley, in Hampton, Virginia. Three other labs followed, along with two small test facilities. NACA went on to invent an air duct that revolutionized aircraft engines and that continues to be used in modern automobiles. The NACA cowling, a fairing or cover that reduces engine drag, is a part of some aircraft nine decades after its invention. Similarly, NACA airfoils—essentially, formulas that determine the shape of wings—set the standard for airplane design used to this day. NACA engineers provided critical solutions to the problems Boeing had with the B-17 bomber before World War II, and it provided the British government with a wing design that perfected the Mustang fighter plane built by North American Aviation. Many of NACA’s inventions were “bootleg” projects on the part of individuals and small teams; the committee’s management encouraged these small side missions with the (correct) expectation that they would lead to greater discoveries.

In general, when Boeing, Douglas or other commercial companies had a problem, they brought it to NACA’s Langley Laboratory to solve. Even during my NASA career at Langley, the lab was brought in to solve “911” calls from the likes of Airbus, Northrop, Orbital, and Boeing. NASA engineers worked to solve buffeting problems that McDonnell Douglas was having with the twin tails of the F-18 fighter jet. More calls came in. The composite tail of an Airbus plane had broken off during takeoff. The Pegasus air-launched rocket needed urgent engineering help with aerodynamics and controls. And Boeing’s Delta II rocket was suffering instabilities on launch. For these urgent requests for help, Langley engineers serve as the equivalent of the Agriculture Extension Agents who answer farmers’ questions about what’s devouring their crops.

In short, NACA and its successor have helped push innovation, while also enabling the inventions of commercial industry to succeed.