If I Were King

I was talking to a friend about America’s civil space program recently, telling all about its benefits to the economy, STEM, and America’s standing in the world. Just as I was winding up, he interrupted me.

“What if you were king of America? For a whole decade. What exactly would you do with space?”

The question threw me. Having worked so many years for NASA, I’m not used to thinking like a king. I like the idea of having a rational, practical, representative Congress writing laws and keeping an eye on the chief executive. I like the idea of giving all space stakeholders a say—including the scientific community, the aerospace industry, and every taxpayer who cares. Still, imagining yourself king makes for a useful thought experiment. If you were a benevolent king, with the intention of setting things aright in America and then restoring democracy after a decade, what would you do with all that power?

Personally, I would ban $4 cups of coffee.

Next, I would use space as a great tool to produce the outsized benefits to the nation that we all want: a nonlinear effect.

Previously, I described society as a complex system, with stocks and flows, feedback loops, and degrees of resilience. Focus on just one part without thinking about the entire system, and you can unwittingly bring about sub-optimization: the tendency of one part to dominate the others, throwing the whole thing out of kilter. Complex systems tend to be nonlinear; one input, or one change to a part, can produce effects that far exceed the size of the input or the importance of the part.

But if I were king, why would I have to worry about systems thinking? Because if I’m actually to do some good during my decade-long rule, I need to fully consider our complex American system. Too often, our politicians and pundits use simple analogies to describe America and its government. We’re a business. Cut the waste. Hand over as much as possible to the private sector. Compete with other nations. On the other hand, We’re a family, the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. Or We’re a village.

All of these analogies can be useful for devising solutions to our problems. Business in particular has created all sorts of innovations that have made government more efficient, communicative, and forward-looking. But society isn’t a business. Nor is government. As we saw in Chapter Five, businesses take on calculated risks, but they reasonably shy away from uncertainty. Chapter Six recounted how NASA pioneered in technical innovations that helped seed the high-tech economy we have today. While a business is proprietary, protecting its knowledge, much of non-military government research creates a public knowledge resource: a renewable, minable ore of intelligence.

Not that society is government, or vice versa. Society is a system, and government is just one part. The private sector is another part, along with families and villages. The question isn’t whether to favor one part over another. If we’re using a systems approach—and, if I were king, we would—then I would look for the most positive nonlinear effects to the system.

Remember our lame car in Chapter Seven? A limited perspective leads to our buying an air conditioner and making the car go even more slowly. That’s a negative nonlinear effect. If the car were a simple system, such as a stable room that simply needed cooling, then the air conditioner might have been the perfect solution. Instead, the car is a complex system; the best solution lay in a positive nonlinear solution, a relatively small change that would result in the biggest change for the good.

Back to my kingship. I would treat America the way I did missions at NASA. I learned you can’t just focus on one sub-system, no matter how important, or the whole thing won’t work. All the people in each area had to be systems thinkers, and they needed a chief systems thinker to integrate their inputs and make sure the interactions within the system didn’t cause the system to fail.

The more complex a system becomes, the more important it is to think systematically. And America is enormously complex—almost as complex as your own body. I believe a systems approach works for America at least as well as it did for me at NASA. So, if my goals were to create the brightest future for the American system, increasing the odds of bringing the greatest happiness for the most Americans over the longest time, I would look for the tool or input with the greatest nonlinear effect: a small input with an enormous, beneficial output.

You can guess which tool I would choose.

There undoubtedly are tools or inputs other than space which would benefit America’s future. But I challenge you to find one that has already been proven to work, and that can create the most benefits for the least cost. As we’ve seen throughout this book, the input of a tiny fraction of the federal budget into the public space program would boost the economy, restore America’s innovativeness, and ensure our peaceful leadership among nations and restless young people around the world.

In sheer dollar calculations, the benefits over the next generation would total in the trillions. The cost: about $10 billion added to the annual NASA budget.