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Editor’s Letter

Editor’s Letter

Fall 2008 | Volume 23 |  Issue 3

I remember the dark, crisp air of that early October morning in 1957 as I sleepily followed my father up a hill near our house. The sky was a ceiling of bright stars and the dewy grass soaked my pajama legs.

After many minutes waiting, there it was! A small faint star, crossing the northeast sky. Sputnik, the Soviet satellite. That tiny light—pinpointing human’s awesome progress—was thrilling, but also terrifying. That year, we schoolchildren scrambled under our metal desks whenever we heard the frightening wail of the air raid siren, practicing in case of nuclear attack. Now the Soviets had not only beaten us into space, but also flown a menacing spacecraft right over our backyards.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy challenged us to tackle perhaps the greatest technological challenge of the 20th century, “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth . . . before this decade is out.” It seemed an impossible dream.

I watched as the space program matured from Mercury to Gemini and Apollo; along with millions of people around the world, I sat by a tiny black and white television set, watching a faint and grainy image of Neil Armstrong lowering his boot onto the dust-covered lunar surface. It was a triumph of American ingenuity.

What is the true measure of a nation’s greatness? Surely more than military muscle or economic power. Merit must also be measured in vision and purpose and contributions to science and in that, NASA has given us so much. It helped us show the rest of the world how to lead.

But what path should NASA take now? Do we save money with robots, or throw scarce funds into a few dramatic, manned ventures? Do we stand aside and let the Europeans or Chinese have their turn, perhaps setting a course to Mars ahead of us?

American is a nation of pioneers, dreamers, and inventors. If NASA is allowed merely to limp into the future, with the Kennedy Space Center functioning mostly as theme park, what does it say about us? Have we grown old with NASA, our time passed? Or are we still a nation that seeks great achievements, as President Kennedy said, “not because they are easy but because they are hard, and because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Back down to Earth for a moment, a recent survey of our subscribers revealed a fascinating statistic: 27 percent of you have applied for at least one patent – an astounding 40,000 readers of Invention & Technology!

With that in mind, we’ve launched a column examining the history of patents. For our first venture, we asked telephone historian Ralph O. Meyer and contributing editor Bernie Carlson to take a look at the recent controversy over the Bell patent. I’ve had a lifetime interest in Alexander Graham Bell, having written a biography of him. I’ve never read a more clear explanation of the phone invention than is found on p. 14. If you have suggestions about other patents you think would make an interesting column, please let me know at

Edwin S. Grosvenor

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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