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NHTSA hires underemployed NASA engineers to figure out Toyota problems

In the 1960s, the federal government summoned the best scientific minds of a generation and charged them with the heady goal of putting a man on the moon.

Today, the federal government has summoned the best scientific minds of a generation and charged them with the heady goal of ... figuring out what's causing Toyota's runaway acceleration problem.

My colleague Peter Whoriskey broke the story this morning, which you can read by clicking here. The summary, Peter writes:

The nation's auto-safety regulators have tapped nine experts from the space agency to answer questions involving software, hardware and other electronics issues, the Department of Transportation is expected to announce Tuesday, according to sources briefed on the plan who asked not to be identified because it is not yet public.

I guess it makes sense. NASA engineers and scientists don't have a lot to do since President Obama effectively killed the manned U.S. space program in his 2011 budget, cutting back President Bush's ambitious 2004 effort to travel back to the moon, along with other projects.

Paraphrasing JFK's historic man-on-the-Moon speech:

We choose to find out what's causing runaway Toyota acceleration. We choose to find out what's wrong with Toyotas in this decade and possibly in all models and makes, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Not quite the same ring, eh?

Clearly, there has been a shift in national priorities since the end of the Cold War. When President John F. Kennedy made his famous "man on the moon" speech in 1961, the U.S. was locked in a pretty hot Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Russian communists had beaten the U.S. by launching a chunk of metal into space -- Sputnik -- and beaten the U.S. by launching a man into space -- Yuri Gargarin. The last thing the U.S. could win was the moon, and Kennedy and then President Lyndon B. Johnson committed billions to the national self-esteem project.

The 1960s space program produce numerous consumer benefits -- aluminum foil, advanced computing power, Velcro and don't forget Tang -- but the main goal obviously was to put an American on another planet and bring him back safely.

Today, with the Soviet Union consigned to the dustbin of history, with the rise of the nascent private space-flight industry and a barely avoided second Great Depression, priorities are understandably altered. The individual, rather than the nation, commands the center of our attention, on Capitol Hill and in the marketplace.

So NASA scientists need something to do. It is a sign of the times that the great mission of our times -- our Apollo program, our man on the moon -- is figuring out why a relative handful of Toyotas are running away from their owners.

Follow me on Twitter at @theticker.

By Frank Ahrens  |  March 30, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Autos , Congress , Corporations , The Ticker  | Tags: Apollo, NASA, Runaway acceleration, Toyota, runaway prius, toyota problems  
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No more rocket fuel for you Post. Looks like we have gone from upscale to downscale for the remainder. It was good while it lasted and now it's curtains sweetheart. Better things to do are better. Don't be bitter.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 30, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

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