AIN Blog: The Final Shuttle Mission Looks Down on a Vastly Changed World Beneath

 - July 8, 2011, 8:22 AM

At 11:29 this morning, the final space shuttle flight got under way as Atlantis rose from the launch pad on a column of fire from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The threat of thunderstorms had remained at bay, and, some 2.5 minutes later than planned, STS-135 headed skyward to punch through an overcast on its way to spending 12 days in the void above.

Within scant minutes of a perfect launch, the spacecraft was doing 7,000 mph, headed for 140 miles up, 15,000 mph and a rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning. Atlantis left the pad with just four crew, rather than the usual six or seven, and the Nasa website shows its payload as the Raffaello Multi-purpose Logistics Module.

However, to my mind the vastly more significant payload is the staggering weight of U.S. intellectual capital this 135th and final shuttle mission is carrying and how we’re frittering it away–not by terminating the shuttle program but in the way we’re just giving away the broader resource of our hard-won brainpower and ingenuity to the Chinese. Some 15 years ago, I said to my then-eight-year-old son near the family toolbox in the garage, “Mark my words, son, these $15 power drills from China are going to bite us in the butt some day.” That was about the extent of the tutoring in world economics I was qualified to give him, but that day is well and truly upon us.

Our insatiable appetite for cheap stuff over the past couple of decades has allowed the Chinese to gorge themselves on dollars. We have fallen over ourselves to show them how to build, cheaply, all the stuff we’ve dreamed up with our clever, ingenious, risk-taking brains. Ask McDonnell Douglas how well its MD-80 factory in China worked out. Does the ARJ-21 Chinese airliner look more than vaguely familiar?

Cirrus has trotted out what strikes me as painfully naive assurances that Chinese money will keep good, high-paying jobs in Duluth, Minn., but I fail to see why, when the rest of the world is tripping over itself to build products (the Cessna Skycatcher, for example) cheaply in China, why China itself would choose to task highly paid workers in the U.S. with building SR22s and maybe single-engine jets. It makes no sense. They want the know-how, not the heavy foreign payroll.

My son graduated from Lehigh University last year with majors in economics and English, so he’s already way better qualified than I am to ponder and tackle this disturbing trend.