'Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth'

My little brother is an astronaut.

I like to give him a hard time because, well, that's what big brothers are supposed to do, no? It's my duty to be his highest hurdle, so that he will not be condemned to mediocrity. And no brother of mine is mediocre!

The best I can do though is toss political bombs at him: "Spaceflight is too expensive, Little Brother. If you're designing a rocket that will send Gitmo terrorists to Mars, let me know. Otherwise, don't bother." And on the anniversary of mankind's first successful journey to the Moon, it would seem the world agrees with me.

Ted Anthony with AP writes:
The final Apollo mission came home before Nixon resigned. Skylab fell to Earth. Challenger disintegrated going up, Columbia coming down. Kennedy's New Frontier ethos - space as a kinder, gentler Manifest Destiny - slouched into the "Alien" catchphrase: "In space, no one can hear you scream."

Today, the reasons for Americans to pay attention to the ground, rather than the heavens, can be rattled off like a parody of a Billy Joel song. Terrorists. Global warming. Swine flu. Economic collapse. Nukes in North Korea and mass shootings in the heartland.

All of that is true. We lost sight of the Apollo Program in the angst over Vietnam. (And as a twist, the newsman most affiliated with both, Walter Cronkite, filed his last report this weekend.)

Tom Wolfe, who celebrated the heroes of the Mercury missions in The Right Stuff, paints an even more pessimistic picture. He correctly identifies the source of NASA's malaise as the militaristic raison d'être of its mission:
From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957, everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest. At first there was alarm over the Soviets’ seizure of the “strategic high ground” of space. They were already up there — right above us! They could now hurl thunderbolts down whenever and wherever they wanted. And what could we do about it? Nothing. Ka-boom!

The Moon landing was always an act of geopolitical posturing. It was a callously Machiavellian act meant to keep the public enthralled with the regime and the enemy uncertain of the odds. It may not have been staged, but it was carefully and deliberately produced.

The scientists and engineers argue for their work by pulling on America's national memory. "We are a country of explorers and immigrants," they say. "We cannot stop pushing at the boundaries or our civilization, our raison d'état, will perish!"

NASA and the space program is either needed by politics or demanded by human nature, but not both. Did we instigate a war with Mexico to explore the West, or the other way round? Was Teddy Roosevelt just a conservationist, or was he guarding America's precious soul, which he found in the wilderness?

As a big brother, the answer is easy: we do what we must to achieve what we can. Politics is a vulgar, scatological account of a civilization. It has to be done perhaps, but it should never be done for its own purpose. If there is a higher cause for politics, it is to discover – conjure up if necessary! – that motivation which will make NASA indispensable again

We may have sent John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard and all the rest up into space for our own craven reasons, but they came back to give us new reasons, better ones. That's what astronauts do. That's why they're heroes.

My little brother's not going to be an astronaut someday, he already is one.


Greg said...

Marking the 40th year since Apollo 11, there has been a fair amount of recent activity on the internet regarding the uselessness and lack of return from NASA. I'm sure the talks have been around ever since the Apollo mission, but it seems that this anniversary is bringing some of these arguments back to a more visible table.
My question is this: of the $3.1 trillion dollar budget (2009 fiscal) why would people choose to criticize the government and its $17.6 billion dollar NASA budget (0.56% of the total budget)? I feel as though NASA is taking the heat because it is one of the more visible government agencies, and that its benefits to "us here on the ground" are largely unrecognized.
Take for instance the space industry, a roughly $300 billion/year industry that would be largely nonexistent if not for the governments continual need for the technologies it provides (mainly military oriented). And still worse, the lack of recognition for the roughly 1.5 million jobs it makes available (currently 600,000 employed) and the economic growth it provides; and this does not include industry which benefits from the space industry, such as communications, solar technologies, robotics, aircraft, and more.
To me NASA is mostly a government headline to inform the public on the advancements of one of its most important industries. Though like any headline it is going to take the heat from time to time.

Packherd said...

The problem, Greg, is that it's pork, delicious pork.

Your argument about NASA's budget and its economic impact relative to the deficit as a whole could be applied to countless other things, including the National Endowment for the Arts, beefalo breeding research, the creation of international driver's licenses, the F-22, and the construction of high speed train corridors.

All those things are wasteful to somebody and probably at least one of them is wasteful to you.

Also, if the launch of artificial satellites is important to our economy, then some entrepreneur will find a way to do so more efficiently than NASA. All we really need is a military authority to cover our national security satellites, and even that can be provided by contractors.

Your point about NASA's role as an incubator of technology is valid. But if we hadn't spent billions building and fixing Hubble, would we really not have cell phones?

When we are faced with a crappy economy, some people see an opportunity to "drown the government in a bathtub," and the weakest are always the first to be preyed upon. Even people with noble intentions realize that their families and their businesses can't afford to invest in fancy high-end R&D, so why is any amount of their tax dollars being spent on a space program?

What they fail to realize – because the bathtub-drowners distract them from it – is that no one ever stops investing in bad times. In fact, we invest MORE of our incomes relatively. For example, a family will tighten its belt to pay for their kids' college, or do their own car repairs, or not eat out as much. All of those things are investments of a sort, but we perceive them as cutbacks.