We Were Promised Space Lasers: State of the Union’s Biggest Fibs

This Tuesday, Jan. 20, President Barack Obama will honor an American tradition as old as George Washington: the State of the Union. The constitutionally ordained address to each new session of Congress has been a presidential ritual since 1790. It’s a chance to check in on the present and make some pledges for our future.

It’s that future bit that got us thinking: If all that talk had come true, even the crazy, far-out pledges—especially the crazy, far-out pledges—what would our world look like today? Not political promises and posturing for lower taxes or immigration reform, but lifestyle manna such as supersonic jets and paralysis-curing implants.

So we read through 35 years of State of the Union addresses, from Obama back to Ronald Reagan, and found an interesting mix of science and science fiction with varying likelihoods of the prognostications ever becoming reality. Obama may have missed his goal of having 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 (by 725,000 cars), but it’s bound to happen one day. Meanwhile, Reagan’s nuclear “shield” (popularly known as the Star Wars program) is a remnant of a time tormented by the Cold War. As for Clinton’s child-safe “smart guns” well, who’s to tell?

Together, these visions offer a uniquely American version of Utopia. One we’d be perfectly happy driving our Wi-Fi-enabled, 3D-printed, hydrogen-fueled car around—but maybe only for a day or two.

3D Printing Factory Towns

The Pledge: In 2013, Obama referred to a once-shuttered warehouse in the Rust Belt that became a “state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering 3D printing” and proposed replicating its success around the country.

The Reality? As Obama said, it has already happened in Youngstown, Ohio, thanks to his Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. But the likelihood of reviving former industrial towns with 3D printing “hubs” seems counterintuitive to the very idea of 3D printing, not to mention the fact that 3D printing is still pricier than the old-fashioned assembly line for most manufacturers.

Drugs That Regenerate Damaged Organs

The Pledge: In 2013, Obama also heralded the work of scientists who are “developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs” and urged Congress to keep making those investments.

The Reality? Things are looking good. Scientists have made great advances in regenerating organs using stem cells (doctors grew trachea way back in 2008). And ever since Obama removed some barriers for using stem cells in research, scientists have been steaming ahead.

Smart Guns That Read Fingerprints

The Pledge: In 2000, President Bill Clinton asked gun companies to invest in smart guns to keep weapons out of the hands of children, as well as “other steps to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

The Reality? Despite the 15 years that have passed since Clinton’s call to action, it’s still a dream—one pretty much destined to fail, thanks both to the National Rifle Association and to lack of consumer interest. (We do have fingerprint-enabled gun casesand GPS locators that track when a gun is drawn and shot. Baby steps.)

Super-Fast Planes

The Pledge: In 1986, President Reagan sang the praises of what he referred to as a new “Orient Express” that could, by the end of the decade, “take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound” then fly to Tokyo in two hours.

The Reality? It wasn’t true by the end of the 1980s, and it won’t be by the end of the 2010s. The program, known officially as Rockwell X-30, was canceled in 1994 before entering the prototype phase. A recent appraisal of the concept by the New York Times revealed that the science required to fulfill Reagan’s specific futurist vision still doesn’t exist.

Hydrogen-Fueled Cars

The Pledge: President George W. Bush vowed not once, but three times to help fund the technology to put hydrogen-fueled cars on the road. “Tonight I’m proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles,” he said in 2003 and then beat the drum again in 2005 and in 2006.

The Reality? We’re almost there. Despite the “cool factor” that such manufacturers as Chevy (F) and Tesla (TSLA) have brought to the electric car, don’t count out Bush’s hydrogen engine. Just last week, Honda (HMC)announced it would release a hydrogen-powered car by 2016. The major hurdle? Hydrogen “gas” stations. Currently there are only about a dozen—and they’re all in Southern California.

Commercial Development in Space

The Pledge: In 1985, Reagan spoke of the potential of commercial development in space, saying, “We could manufacture in 30 days life-saving medicines it would take 30 years to make on earth. We can make crystals of exceptional purity to produce supercomputers.”

The Reality? Sure, so long as Richard Branson and Elon Musk lead the charge privately. Programs such as that of Virgin Galactic aim to make space tourism a reality imminently, while SpaceX has started delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s 2004 plan to establish a moon base by 2020 (and then go to Mars) seems a public monies pipe dream.

High-Speed Rail System

The Pledge: In 2011, Obama promised that 80 percent of the U.S. would have access to high-speed rail by 2036. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying, without the pat-down,” he joked to congressional laughter.

The Reality? It depends on where you live. If you’re in California and Florida, plans are in place—if contentious—but that Brooklyn to Washington commute? Fuggedaboutit. Bullet trains are complicated builds, and considering how ridiculous public transportation delays can get (cough, Second Avenue Subway, cough), we might be better off relying on such entrepreneurs as Musk, who are thinking outside-the-track with alternative transport technology like the Hyperloop. In some circles, that’s about as sci-fi as California’s 2029 target date.

Wi-Fi for Everyone

The Pledge: In 2010, President Obama said he’d make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of Americans over the next five years so that firefighters “can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device.”

The Reality? Five years have come and gone, but this will most certainly happen. As of January 2014, 97 percent of American households have a wireless device. That’s some pretty strong consumer incentive.

Artificial Retinas and Brain Implants

The Pledge: In 2000, Clinton hoped medical funding could lead to an “artificial retina to help many blind people to see” and “microchips that would actually directly stimulate damaged spinal cords in a way that could allow people now paralyzed to stand up and walk.”

The Reality? The cyborg lifestyle is pretty darn close. In Israel, doctors are using nanotechnology to develop material that might restore sight to disease-ravaged retinas. Meanwhile, last year in Ohio, surgeons installed a microchip in a 23-year-old man’s brain that allowed him to move paralyzed limbs.

One Million Electric Cars

The Pledge: In 2011, President Barack Obama made a bold declaration about how we would break our dependence on oil by becoming “the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

The Reality? It’s going to happen. There are roughly 280,000 electric cars off the assembly line in the U.S., considerably shy of Obama’s goal. Yet, when you take into account that almost half the electric cars on the road today hit the road in 2014, it’s safe to assume that we will hit 1 million by the end of the decade.

A Nuclear Shield

The Pledge: One idea Reagan had in 1986 for protecting America from the Soviet threat was “a security shield” that could one day “render nuclear weapons obsolete and free mankind from the prison of nuclear terror.”

The Reality? This pledge begat the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly dubbed Star Wars) and included tests for everything from satellite lasers to ray guns. Then the Cold War ended. The legacy of the program, however, lives on in the Missile Defense Agency—and in the U.S. Navy’s laser-rigged gunships deployed in the Persian Gulf. (Which, amazingly, work.)

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