At Sun 'n Fun, just a couple of weeks ago, one of the most interesting news conferences I went to was hosted by Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the Moon during the last Apollo mission, with Gene Cernan. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the strangeness of the bright Moon landscape against the pitch-black sky, and the view of a big blue Earth hanging above the mountains where the pale Moon should be. It's amazing to imagine the crew looking down on the Moon's cratered surface from their tiny spacecraft, with its even tinier computer brain that probably could be outsmarted by the processing power in your phone.
Like most space veterans, Schmitt argued that we need to go back to the Moon. His view is that we can find valuable minerals there that would make the trip worthwhile, and humans should go instead of robots because we are better at exploring. Others have argued that we need to go back if only to inspire another generation of astronauts and engineers, and encourage kids to study math. But most pragmatists agree that the only reason we went in the first place was to beat the Russians, and without a similar threat barking at our heels, we're not likely to commit to such a daunting effort.
So what other goal could galvanize our youth, inspire our technologists, and convince the world that Americans are the smartest, bravest, most capable people on the planet? Maybe we could get serious about perfecting that recurring symbol of the ever-out-of-reach future, the always-popular flying car.
It was weird last week to see the mainstream media pick up the flying-car story, which we've been following in detail for years, as if it just sprang into being. Carl Dietrich, the CEO of Terrafugia, who we've interviewed a zillion times, turned up as a fresh new face on the TV newscasts, as his Transition design debuted at a major car show in New York. It's clear that the masses of people retain their fascination with the prospect of a flying car.
But it won't take long for that fascination to wear off, once the masses realize that while the Transition may be the first of its kind, it's not the kind of flying car most folks imagine. You can park it in your garage, but you still need to drive to the airport. You still need pilot training, and flight planning, and pre-flight checks, and mandated maintenance. What fun is that?
But a true flying car, one that would take you where you want to go on command, take off and land just about anywhere, and would be safe and simple to operate, seems to me possibly just within reach. Not easy, and it's not clear how we would get there from here, but maybe it's plausible, in the way that going to the Moon must have seemed difficult yet do-able in the 1950s.
The advantage of replacing the Moon-shot goal with a flying-car goal is that flying cars overflow with clear and real usefulness and purpose. We don't have to depend on inspiring speeches about the human imperative to explore. We can cite lots of ways fleets of autonomous flying cars would not only make everyone's life simpler and safer and more fun, but would likely end up being more economical and more environmentally friendly than the massively inefficient, dangerous, and costly transportation systems we have now. And if we don't do it first, the clever Chinese might just beat us to it. What more reason do we need?