July 19, 2009


One Giant Leap to Nowhere (TOM WOLFE, 7/19/09, NY Times)

How could such a thing happen? In hindsight, the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.

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! There goes Bangor ... Ka-boom! There goes Boston ... Ka-boom! There goes New York ... Baltimore ... Washington ... St. Louis ... Denver ... San Jose — blown away! — just like that.

Physicists were quick to point out that nobody would choose space as a place from which to attack Earth. The spacecraft, the missile, the Earth itself, plus the Earth’s own rotation, would be traveling at wildly different speeds upon wildly different geometric planes. You would run into the notorious “three body problem” and then some. You’d have to be crazy. The target would be untouched and you would wind up on the floor in a fetal ball, twitching and gibbering. On the other hand, the rockets that had lifted the Soviets’ five-ton manned ships into orbit were worth thinking about. They were clearly powerful enough to reach any place on Earth with nuclear warheads.

But that wasn’t what was on President Kennedy’s mind when he summoned NASA’s administrator, James Webb, and Webb’s deputy, Hugh Dryden, to the White House in April 1961. The president was in a terrible funk. He kept muttering: “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody ... There’s nothing more important.” He kept saying, “We’ve got to catch up.” Catching up had become his obsession. He never so much as mentioned the rockets.

Dryden said that, frankly, there was no way we could catch up with the Soviets when it came to orbital flights. A better idea would be to announce a crash program on the scale of the Manhattan Project, which had produced the atomic bomb. Only the aim this time would be to put a man on the Moon within the next 10 years.

Barely a month later Kennedy made his famous oration before Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He neglected to mention Dryden.

INTUITIVELY, not consciously, Kennedy had chosen another form of military contest, an oddly ancient and archaic one. It was called “single combat.”

The best known of all single combats was David versus Goliath. Before opposing armies clashed in all-out combat, each would send forth its “champion,” and the two would fight to the death, usually with swords. The victor would cut off the head of the loser and brandish it aloft by its hair.

The deadly duel didn’t take the place of the all-out battle. It was regarded as a sign of which way the gods were leaning. The two armies then had it out on the battlefield ... unless one army fled in terror upon seeing its champion slaughtered. There you have the Philistines when Little David killed their giant, Goliath ... and cut his head off and brandished it aloft by its hair (1 Samuel 17:1-58). They were overcome by a mad desire to be somewhere else. (The Israelites pursued and destroyed them.)

More than two millenniums later, the mental atmosphere of the space race was precisely that.

The Economic Failure of the Space Program (Michael Mandel, July 19, 2009, Business Week)
Between 1962 and 1972, the U.S. space program spent $176 billion (inflation-adjusted in 2009 dollars). In magnitude, that comes close to the mammoth federal expenditures on building the interstate highway system over the same period (outlays from the Federal Highway Trust Fund totalled $220 billion in 2009 dollars from 1962-72).

We know what we got from the interstate highway system—fast, easy transportation, the creation of the suburbs, an entire transformation of our way of life. What did we get economically from the space program, especially the manned portion? Much, much less. Government investment in space, rather than opening up new opportunities, turned out to be a one-off. Lots of communication satellites, yes, but what else? There’s no manufacturing in space, and unless I’m wrong, there’s been little research done in space which has had great practical applications (please let me know if I’m wrong about this).

I’m sorry to be a grump about this. I don’t think the expenditures on space were a bad idea. I don’t think the moon landing was a bad idea. To the contrary—I’m glad we did it.

I’m just making the economic point that we used large amounts of scarce scientific and technical labor and money for one activity which at least up to now, has not produced big economic payoffs.

It wasn't helpful that from the start of the Space era until the election of Ronald Reagan we had an especially unthoughtful series of presidents.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 19, 2009 6:55 AM
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