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Lost in Space?

Ceres 2I’m certain you don’t know this, but late last week a NASA probe called Dawn began what it many ways will be the final chapter of the Space Age as we know it.

Dawn, a remarkable little craft about the size of an AMC Pacer (or a city bus with its solar panels fully deployed), helped in the study of Mars, gave scientists key data about a potentially significant asteroid called Vesta, and will conclude its seven-year mission in the weeks ahead by shooting, orbiting and sending Cereshome images of Ceres, a relatively close-by celestial body recently re-categorized as a “dwarf planet.”

Why should this matter? Well, maybe it doesn’t; at least not on a literal level.

Oh, I suppose it would be nice to find out if, as scientists believe, that Ceres has, much like the Earth, its own atmosphere and its own gravitational pull.

DawnI suppose too it would be nice to know if the dwarf plant has large bodies of water, as it appears, and if so, what the makeup of all that water is.

I suppose too it would be interesting to discover the origin of those two glowing haloes of bright white scientists see smack dab in the center of Ceres.

And, finally, I guess it would be pretty cool to get one step closer to answering the two questions that have always fueled the study of the cosmos: where did we come from and where are we going?

MercuryBut if you’re not interested in such things, with the conclusion of Ceres’ mission, which should come in about four months, the dynamic and often heroic Space Age of the past 55 or so years will unofficially end. And that will be pretty much it.

Oh, NASA will still be around. It’ll still be gobbling up a relatively small fraction of our federal budget (less that ½ of 1%). And the organization will still be making occasional headlines and stealing moments here and there on CNN as it explores rock-star planets like Saturn and Mars.

But NASA will, in large part, only be digging deeper in places it already knows exist. It will be exploring, in other words, the known.  Meanwhile, what we will be losing is what has always defined the Space Age; the dogged pursuit of the unknown.

Tom SwiftAs more and more of us become concerned only with what we can see, touch and wrap their brains around, and the more so many of us continue to turn our backs on science and the scientific method, the more this country will start abandoning what is, arguably, our single greatest and most defining strength.

Look, I know budgets are tight. I know troubles like ISIS, failing schools, and climate change seem far more pressing and infinitely more urgent. But by slowly sun-setting man’s exploration of space, and by continually chipping away at NASA’s budget, ignoring its accomplishments and, in some cases, demonizing the science that fuels it, we’re setting ourselves up for paying a steeper and far dearer price.

That’s why I am writing this today. Because as a child of Tom Swift books, Lost in Space, Star Wars and Apollo missions, and a kid who cut his teeth on Reach for the Starsscience fiction, and one who shared a generational fascination with that which always seemed to lie just beyond our grasp, I can’t help but feel we’re losing something by accepting what we know and, somehow, being OK with that.

I can’t help but feel that as a country that has always stood in pursuit of discovering the next great thing, if we stop funding, supporting and reporting on space exploration, we’ll be losing something fundamental to who we’ve always been and what we’ve always strove to do.

America will stop being – in both a literal and figurative sense – a people, an economy, a nation that dares to defy accepted thinking and, more importantly, dares to reach for the stars.

Today’s Hottest Label in China May Shock You

China sweatshopsI’m sure we all know the story.

We know that a few decades back China came after us with a vengeance; that they targeted American manufacturing and started luring many industries overseas.

We know they fixed on price as our area of vulnerability, and came after us using rock bottom pricing as their weapon of choice.  And that was hardly a stretch, given China’s government subsidies and China solar paneltheir millions of laborers willing to work in sweatshop conditions for sweatshop wages.

And we know too that Chinese companies kept their prices artificially low by often slashing quality to the bare minimum; high enough to pass muster but low enough to keep costs well below the going global rate.

QualitySo what did we do?  Well, once again, as is now common knowledge, we punted on the whole price thing.  We knew we wanted no part of a price war, just as we knew actually winning a price war is often the worst possible outcome for a combatant.

So, even as China’s government continued to subsidize its own companies, such as those in the solar power industry, most U.S. manufacturers decided to China middle classregroup, retool and go to war using what turned out to be a far more powerful weapon.

We rededicated ourselves to quality.  And in the process U.S. manufacturers began using the vastly superior quality of American made goods to start kicking China’s low-cost butt in the global market all the way to Katmandu.

And in the course of doing that, and as a result of our country’s vastly superior reputation for quality, a funny thing happened in China.

Chinese middle classAs the size of the country’s middle class continued to explode as the seeds of capitalism continued to take root and flower, those hundreds of millions of suddenly middle class Chinese let it be known in no uncertain terms they wanted no part of Chinese goods.  Now that they could afford it, they wanted only best.  They wanted, in other words, things made in America.

As a result, of all the designer labels in China today, do you know which one continues to resonate most with middle class consumers and which one continues to suck up hundreds of millions if not billions of the country’s Made in USAdiscretionary dollars?

“Made in U.S.A.”

Ironic, isn’t it? That after so many years of fearing Chinese manufacturers, it is China that now represents American manufacturing’s biggest and most fertile market.

China investmentThat’s why China today is investing in America as never before.  It’s why some Chinese private equity firms are building new manufacturing plants here, and creating hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. jobs.  And it’s why others are buying established U.S. companies and leaving their brands and processes intact.

(And for more on that click here.)

Now, I won’t kid you.  It’s not all roses, and some of my peers continue to see China’s escalating investment and the country’s increased presence on these shores (and in our classrooms, board rooms and shop floors) in far more sinister terms, and I will get into some of that next week.

But in the meantime, know this: as a manufacturer committed to making the mfg 3finest specialty couplings in the world, I’m relieved and delighted to say it’s apparently true what people have long been saying.

Quality does, indeed, never out of style.


Study Shows U.S. Industrial Output Up, Pollution Down

New Audi A3 ProductionAs anyone who’s read this blog for any length will attest, I am a man who believes in the wisdom of the open market.  And I will argue until I’m blue in the face that a free and open market, especially one prodded by government incentives, spurred by government investment, and unencumbered by limited government vision, is a ticket for game-changing breakthroughs – especially in the areas of product development and that often delicate balance that must be struck between a prosperous nation’s economic and its physical heath.

That’s why I was delighted to stumble upon this little kernel last week.  Turns out a Georgetown economist just issued a white paper on behalf of the National Bureau of Economic Research that says U.S. manufacturing output between 1990 and 2008 had increased by 1/3, yet in that time U.S. industry’s Clean 1pollution had decreased by 2/3.

That, my friends, is astounding.

But more than that, the person conducting the study, Arik Levenson, revealed that this drop in pollution did not come in a way many cynics might have otherwise suggested; namely, because we off-shored our heaviest and dirtiest manufacturing functions to underdeveloped and third world counties.  To the contrary, his study of 400 manufacturers showed that 90% of this country’s collective decline in pollution was a result of manufacturers having adopted cleaner production processes, including greater and more sophisticated efficiencies, recycling programs, and pollution-capture technologies.

Clean 2Granted, it was not a soup-to-nuts study of all pollutants, and measured only levels of six of the usual suspects (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and two types of particulate matter), but still; those are some incredibly heartening findings.

And it is one more example, of why, for all the U.S. continues to trail China in some instances, we’re light years ahead in others.

Could a government alone have achieved such results?  Not in a million years.

Clean 4But because rekindling this country’s manufacturing fire and reducing its industrial waste was a hand-in-glove effort between a number of responsible and market-savvy individuals in the private sector and one deeply concerned federal government, a little bit of economic and environmental magic was somehow able to happen.

And maybe we owe it to ourselves to take a moment to reflect on that.