Zachary Crippen: Manned space isn’t on the agenda, nation-building has lost its appeal, and huge government programs are hardly conservative. But there are upsides to national goals.
Photo Credit: (NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin)
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are 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.”
-John F. Kennedy’s Address to the Nation on the Space Race
I used to think that the space program was a waste of time and money. What did we gain, I asked, from spending billions of dollars just so we could put a man on the moon? Were we solving the world’s worst diseases with our scientific experiments done in free-fall environments? Was rocket propellant that burned at inconceivable rates a more worthy purchase than defense expenditures? What did we gain from any of this? What are the merits of a national object?
This week’s retirement of the Space Shuttle Discovery – the most-flown spacecraft in the history of our space program – marks the completion of our government-led manned space age. The retirement is reflective of a new space strategy for the Obama administration. The era that was born in John F. Kennedy’s monumental address from Rice University has served its purpose; we landed a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. We beat the Soviet Union.
My onetime critique of the space race aside, I think that there are immense merits to the pursuit of a national goal. The method that we employed to put a man on the moon, however, was anything but conservative. In fact, the New Atlantis has called the space race “perversely unconservative in design,” because we sought to defeat the socialist USSR state with a paradoxically large government agency. We did it, but not with capitalism. We mirrored the Soviets’ statist approach and poured endless amounts of public sector dollars into a goal so unprecedented that we captured the attention of a nation.
Yet that last part is what I love about the Space Race. It captured the imagination and galvanized the efforts of a nation. Those readers who have seen October Sky will remember the amazement in Homer Hickham’s eyes when he watched Sputnik 1 float across the West Virginia sky. I’ve heard stories from older generations tell me of the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing–one that captivated every audience that was fortunate enough to see it. To children like Homer, it was sheer inspiration. To philosophers, this represented an unprecedented step (or “giant leap,” as it were) for mankind. To scientists, it was the accomplishment of a near-impossible feat. To political aficionados, the triumph of democracy over communism. To everyone, it was something incredible. The national object of putting a man on the moon was unparalleled in its success.
Why have a national object? First, it provides credibility to the raison d’etre (reason for existence) of a state. When Kennedy announced the beginning of the moon landing project, it was probably in part to divert public attention from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But the true end of his endeavor was to galvanize the nation’s efforts in order to defeat the threatening statist leviathan in the opposing hemisphere. What followed wasn’t simply characterized as a “Space Endeavor;” it was a “Space Race” because we had to beat the Soviets.
Second, national objects advance economic and technological growth and development. It is no coincidence that, in the years between 1961 and 1969, the United States never experienced a shrinkage of Gross Domestic Product. NASA research and development has also given us Teflon, the artificial heart pump, cancer screening instruments, weather satellite capabilities, satellite communications, and a host of other technologies that improve our quality of life and in some cases save it. NASA’s various contracts with private corporations and its partnerships with academic institutions have been beneficial for the private sector and bettered the minds of our young engineers.
But perhaps the strongest reason to possess and gloriously pursue a national object is one that is not yet obvious in retrospect: the pursuit of a national object gives us confidence and pride in our own abilities. Every American watching that live broadcast of the lunar landing felt proud to be an American. Everyone who had a hand in making it happen found the inconceivable to be possible. The goal did indeed “organize the best of our energies and skills,” and we were all the better for it.
Niall Ferguson’s most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, argues that competition, work, and consumption are three of the “killer applications” that allowed the West to surge ahead of the rest of the world in its aggressive development and progress. As the rest of the world has slowly begun to acquire what we have taken for granted for so long, we are in danger of being eclipsed and overrun. What Ferguson sees as the greatest danger to our own Western civilization (of which the U.S. is the undeniable leader) is not from other civilizations but instead from “our own pusilanimity.” The Space Race is the antithesis of that pusilanimity–as is any equivalently magnificent national object.
What is next? Manned space isn’t on the agenda for the current administration. Nation-building and democracy-planting didn’t work for the last one. It might not be Mars or an Iraqi parliament, but we need to find something. A national object could, in the words of Ronald Reagan, preserve America as “the last best hope for mankind.”