Jerry Pournelle, Bill Gates, and Mars

I don’t usually read Jerry Pournelle’s blog; I’ve read a couple of books he’s co-authored, but haven’t been excited enough about what he puts on the blog to devote scare attention to it.

I may consider changing that…

On one of my email lists, they cited a post he did on the challenge our educational system presents to the American future – and it’s not the challenge you think it is.

“I said that to make sure you’ll stay awake for the rest of my talk.
And understand, I know Bill Gates, and he is not evil nor does he have
any bad intentions; my conclusions about him are connected to what I
believe to be the worst threat to the country.”

I won’t go into the main body of what I talked about, but my
conclusions were simple: I believe that the worst threat to the United
States is our failure adequately to educate the smartest 25% of our
students; that there are no hopeful counter trends; and the result will
be disaster. Add to that our failure to train or teach skills to the
lower half of the population, and the disaster is made worse. These
trends have related causes.

The underlying cause is our attempt to provide every public school
child with a university prep education. Bill Gates becomes involved
because his foundations promote the idea that “every American child
deserves a world class university prep education”; and the attempt to
do that insures that very few American children will receive a world
class university prep education, and most of the smarter children will
receive an education that is indifferent at best. The failure of our
schools to educate the smart kids will put the United States into a
terrible competitive position that will only get worse. We will
continue to live off our capital, both intellectual and financial.

That hit me pretty hard.

Last week, I went to a dinner featuring Stephen Squyers, one of the
managers of the Mars Rover program, where he presented the state of the
rovers and some cool images and video – massively cool, as a matter of

(sidebar: a surprise guest was some older, white-haired guy with a bit of a deserved swagger in his walk.)

In the discussion afterward, he was asked what – given an unlimited
budget and as a #1 national priority – he would do to further explore
Mars. he outlined an ambitious, multi-trillion dollar program to build
a long-duration base on Mars which sounded immensely attractive to me,
at least.

But I had one concern.

Look in 1961, Kennedy had the infrastructure from World War II and the
Cold War to build on. Engineers, factories, laboratories. So dumping a
few billion into the machine to go to the Moon was adding fuel to an
existing engine. Do we have the engine today to do this, even with the
kind of funding you’re talking about? Do we have the trained talent,
not just for the top 5% of the jobs in the program, but literally at
the nuts and bolts level??

He believed that we do.

I’m not so sure.

And while I don’t think that’s as bad as Pournelle makes it out to be, I think it’s a damn bad thing that we need to correct.