Needless to say, lots of chatter today about the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I’ve got mixed feelings, some of them deeply personal. My family’s company (absorbed in the late 1970s into a Fortune 500 company) designed and manufactured the parachute release relays for the Apollo capsules, as well as the stage separation relays for the Gemini booster rockets before that. The dramatization of the amperage problems in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 movie was true to life: dad was up all night that week with all his engineers re-running tests to see if the parachute release relay could work on less power.
I was always jealous that my dad got to go watch the launches at Cape Canaveral, while I had to watch on TV back in LA. But dad always said NASA, as a government agency, was a pain to deal with, so he decided against bidding on any shuttle work when that came along after Apollo. There’s probably a lesson there. Then, too, the narrow scientific argument that the moon program was a diversion of scarce engineering talent is probably right. But--the politics of it was so fun.
Lots of folks-Tom Wolfe in the NY Times yesterday,
Megan McArdle in The Atlantic blog today--say it is a failure of imagination that we haven’t continued our space program in a serious way. They are right, but miss one big reason why: contemporary liberalism. I submit for your consideration a passage from my first Age of Reagan volume:
The reaction to the moon landing in 1969 is a good example of national exhaustion and liberal guilt at work. The moon landing had been set out as a lofty goal by the liberals’ hero, John F. Kennedy, and the moon landing was an occasion of national pride and celebration for most Americans. Here, amidst the rubble and gloom of the 1960s, was something that had gone splendidly right. Many leading liberals, however, could only sniff that while the moon landing was undeniably impressive, the money for the moon landing would have been better spent on social problems on Earth. The popular cliché of the time went: “Any nation that can land a man on the moon can [fill in the blank].” (The total cost of the decade-long moon landing project was less than three months’ worth of federal spending for social programs in 1969.) A 25 person delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Martin Luther King’s successor), came to the Apollo 11 launch at Cape Canaveral “to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities,” while Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said that “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.” Even the brother of the man who issued the call to go to the moon, Sen. Ted Kennedy, expressed weariness with the space program: “I think after [the moon landing] the space program ought to fit into our other national priorities.”
Still wish we were going back there, though. And to Mars, too. But we’ve got to nationalize health care first, right?