Rethinking the Moon Landing


I’m a little late in commenting on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, deliberately.

I wanted to think about it a bit, see what I could find beyond my immediate, visceral reaction: It was the greatest achievement in human history, and I have trouble understanding people who won’t acknowledge that.

I’ve thought about it, and arrived at this: It was the greatest achievement in human history, but it could have been even more, and people who won’t acknowledge the former will never understand the latter, and I have trouble accepting that.

The landing is one of those “I remember where” moments for me. I was sitting with a crowd of soldiers in front of the dayroom TV of the barracks at Gray Army Air Base in Fort Hood, Texas. I don’t remember anybody cheering or applauding. We just sat there, stunned, I think, in slack-jawed wonder. Human beings had left this planet, safely made the unfathomable journey through space and set foot on the moon.

A bit later, we would appreciate how the effort had, if briefly, united a nation torn by the Vietnam War, violence in the street and so many other flashpoints, and inspired the whole world (600 million watched it live). Later still, we would marvel at the scores of technological advances created by the space race, everything from Dust Busters to CAT scans.

But in that moment, it was enough to celebrate the milestone of the achievement, how the human need to explore beyond the next horizon had taken us farther than most could imagine.

How feeble of imagination and empty of spirit are some who today look back on that moment and jeer.

The United States might have fulfilled JFK’s mandate to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, writes Sophie Pinkham in the New York Times, but the other side won the war for equality: “After putting the first man in space in 1961, the Soviets went on to send the first woman, the first Asian man and the first black man into orbit — all years before the Americans would follow suit.”

Hooray for them, and shame on us, I guess.

And the Washington Post tweeted: “The culture that put men on the moon was intense, fun, family-unfriendly and mostly white and male.” Well, never mind what they accomplished, then, that politically incorrect mob of patriarchal devils.

But the dismissal of the moon project is not a new phenomenon. It began almost immediately after the landing.

The effort might have been inspiring, said Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, but, “The needs of the people on earth, and especially in this country, should have priority. When we solve these problems, we can consider space efforts.”

Never mind, as Steve Hayward has pointed out, that the total cost of the decade-long moon landing project was less than three months’ worth of federal spending for social programs in 1969.

There we have it — both the reason the moon landing happened at all and the reason it was less than it could have been. It was a government job. We went to the moon. And. Then. Just. Quit.

For one thing, a mad race with a tight deadline — get to the moon in a decade — can marshal heroic efforts but does not lend itself to strategic, long-term planning. Once the race is won, objective achieved, what is there to do but move on to the next race?

For another, government is fueled by politics, and that always favors short-term fixes that can be taken credit for, not solutions that cost now but will benefit a future that cannot be seen. Never mind teaching me to fish, to use an old analogy, or go out looking for a new stream, just give me a fish for tonight’s dinner.

I do think government has a role. As a fiscal conservative, I am often asked what programs I would spend tax money on. (Liberals, though, are too seldom asked what programs they would not spend tax money on). My answer is that as long as we have a massive federal apparatus, I would prefer to use some of that might and money on advancing the human condition instead of spending it all to make the messes we won’t stop creating easier to bear.

But not the sole role. Both the government and private sector have had a part in exploration, most effectively when operating in tandem.

Christopher Columbus sought and secured the approval of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his voyages. But the crown was all but broke and being told by advisers that the endeavor was crazy, so it did not provide financial backing. Columbus used the royal approval to secure private financing.

We could use an innovative space exploration public-private partnership. The private space sector is today stronger than ever, with ambitious plans for everything from mining asteroids to putting tourists in orbit. All we need now is some envelope-pushing incentives from the government.

We should already be on Mars and planning the next phase of the journey.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” said the first man on the moon. It will take a lot more of those small steps before we make the next leap.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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