Politico's Britain undergoing ‘mindset change’ toward Beijing, says leading lawmaker says:

The U.K. government is undergoing a "mindset change" with regard to Beijing "not least because of the attitude, the conduct of China throughout Covid-19," said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs of the defense committee in the House of Commons, in a video call with POLITICO.

and later quotes Ellwood:

"In the West we now lean heavily on the commercial capabilities to provide all the answers," said Ellwood. But, he added, in China there are massive state support schemes "allowing their companies — not just Huawei and ZTE but also Alibaba, Tencent, China Telecom, all these enormous giants — to leapfrog ahead in their research, their marketing and promotion."

"The last time we did that in the West on any real scale would be the Apollo program," he said.

I believe that "did that" refers to using state support schemes to allow companies to leapfrog ahead in their research.

Question: How did the US government's actions during the Apollo era "allow companies to leapfrog ahead in their research", and how does it compare to the Chinese state's modern era support and involvement in technology sector companies?

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    You might consider the role of DARPA (then just ARPA, IIRC) in developing the internet, or the military development of GPS, just to name a couple.
    – jamesqf
    May 6, 2020 at 16:23
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    Related question on Apollo program and technology at retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/q/12158 . Reduced IC costs may be related to "leapfrog ahead".
    – Rick Smith
    May 6, 2020 at 17:52

1 Answer 1


Probably not. Apollo cost $25B ($150B) in today's money.

There is a list of spin off technology and do keep in mind that this is the positive spin version of things. Does it look like it generated $150B of wealth? And, how many of these would have eventually been invented organically, wo NASA forcing?

The problem is that, once a big state company gets underway, there is enormous political pressure to keep money and favors flowing its way. Regardless of whether or not it is really innovative. China may have its commercial successes, but they also have massive $ sinkholes in the SOE (State Owned Enterprises). Plus, I rather doubt that Alibaba for example, counts as a state venture.

To take the flip side of whatever "success" NASA/Apollo came up with, Europe had a massive multi billion $ state program in the 90s to develop HDTV. The rationale was just as it always is: maintain innovation, develop technological leadership, beat the Japanese. The technology was analog however and this all went down the drain.

Japan in the 90s had the 5th generation computer project. Everybody was quaking in their boots. Ever heard of it?

You want to see how innovative NASA can be? Just watch how much the Moon/Mars spaceship program is costing per shot. Or what about that other big white elephant, the reusable, cheap, safe Space Shuttle?

This is not to say that the state can't assist in R&D. Off the top of my head:

  • Sponsor things that are insufficiently funded through markets. Vaccines and antibiotic development comes to mind.

  • University grants and assistance in university commercialization.

  • Competitive prizes, like the DARPA challenges, one of which kickstarted autonomous cars and the X Prizes.

  • Targeted engineering research, like what started out the Internet's TCPIP protocol.

  • Support pure research, before there is any commercial incentive.

  • Worthy and cheaper NASA programs like Hubble, Curiosity, ion drives, looking at Europa and kin for life.

  • Education, education, education. Improve it.

There is plenty a smart government can do to stimulate innovation, but little of it comes from granting monopolies and special favors to a select group of government-cozy companies. What works is mostly smaller injections of cash into promising early domains, along with ruthlessness to move on to greener pastures when a given project does not work out.

Chinese companies have the benefit of a truly massive market to grow into, along with some really clever engineers and a very competitive manufacturing industry. They've also shamelessly copied, and been allowed to copy, Western tech. If that sounds like a certain US politician, well, you know what they say about broken clocks.

Mistaking the success of the best, ignoring the failures of the rest and thinking that state sponsorship of big companies is the answer is more likely to bring us back to the excesses and failures of mid 90s European industrial projects, or to generalize the pork barrel politics of something like the F35 than it is to generate the next Apple or Tesla.

As far as what most of the article goes on about, not using Huawei for most of the coming 5G cell networks? Yes, I agree that China has, to date, not demonstrated the benign intentions and goodwill that justifies putting critical Western data infrastructure at the tender mercies of one of its more state-friendly companies.

  • 1
    but, but... Tang!? (humor)
    – uhoh
    May 6, 2020 at 15:49
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    I know, and also the famous zero-gravity ballpoint pen. The joke on that? The Russians just used pencils. May 6, 2020 at 15:51
  • 2
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Once the space pen was invented the Soviets bought it too and NASA wasn't involved in it's creation.
    – user14430
    May 6, 2020 at 17:54
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  • 1
    Caught me falling for a bit of urban legend 😥. Oh well, but it is such a cute story. For the rest, I lived in Europe during the HDTV pork barrel fiasco and, as a budding programmer, read up the doom stories about 5th gen Japanese super computing, along with bleats for $$$. Plus France, where I lived at the time, has always believed in national champions and you can see how well that's worked out for them outside of defense and Airbus. May 6, 2020 at 20:45

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