Commentary

Celebrating the Lunar Landing

By Edward L. Hudgins
This article appeared in the Washington Times and the Houston Chronicle.
Why isn’t July 20 a holiday, or at least universally marked as the anniversary of a high point in human history? Thirty years ago on that date in 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.

Landing on the moon was the realization of a dream dreamt since our prehistoric ancestors on warm savannas or in cold caves first gazed at the lights in the heavens and wondered what they were. The moon, so large and bright in the night sky, held a special fascination for our ancestors. The moon’s regular phases marked the months and suggested to the Greek thinkers that it might be not some celestial goddess but another world. That understanding was confirmed in 1609 when Galileo pointed a telescope at the moon and saw mountains, craters and what looked like seas. From then on men mused about what was considered forever unattainable, a journey to the moon.

But in the 20th century, human beings exemplified the best within them by making that dream a reality. Aristotle was right to say, “All men by nature desire to know.” The moon landing was driven by man’s insatiable curiosity, his need to comprehend the world around him. It required pioneers with a vision of man’s full potential, such as Dr. Robert Goddard, who in 1926 launched the first liquid fuel rocket. It demanded the rigorous discipline and exercise of thousands of human minds, attempting to discern and integrate the millions of bits of information needed to meet the technical challenges of such a trip. And it demonstrated that those minds, by understanding the natural world, could command it. Dr. Werner von Braun designed the Saturn V, a spacecraft as tall as a skyscraper, with the explosive power of the largest bombs, controlled and mastered by man, to lift off the earth and carry astronauts 250,000 miles to the lunar surface.

Now people routinely ask, “If we can go to the moon, why can’t we…” and then fill in the blank with whatever suits their fancy. Perhaps the answer to that question also tells us why the anniversary of that supreme feat is not an annual celebration of human achievement.

The race to the moon was run by the U.S. government to beat the Soviet government. Although most NASA workers at that time performed superlatively, governments at best can achieve such goals on a one-shot basis and then only at a very high cost. The Apollo program was too expensive to sustain more than a half-dozen lunar landings. And like any government agency, NASA’s bureaucratic momentum soon made the space program as wasteful and nonproductive as any other government venture. The space shuttle, instead of bringing launch costs down, drove them up. The cost of the space station has grown from a projected $8 billion to a minimum of $50 billion, plus another $50 billion to operate it over its first decade, even as its value to scientists has declined and its construction delayed for a decade.

NASA’s record after Apollo is in sharp contrast to the expectations of the time. In the late 1960s Americans saw in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey the vision of Pan Am flights to a giant, pinwheel space station, with shuttles going on to moon bases. That vision, like Pan Am, soon died.

Contrast this with the explosive growth in the past two decades of information and communications technology. Although it might be inappropriate to declare Bill Gates’s birthday a national holiday, most Americans appreciate that pioneers like Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs have made a revolution in the private sector, offering new goods and services, making them affordable for most Americans and capturing the imagination and enthusiasm especially of young people who see what man at his best can accomplish.

That could have been the legacy of the lunar landings. In the 1970s there were private companies like American Rocket Co. and Conestoga competing for business against NASA. But the federal government subsidized NASA and regulated its competitors, resulting in their demise.

Yet today there is renewed private-sector interest in providing launch services to meet demands for satellites to handle telecommunications and Internet needs as well as to provide other pioneering services. Rotary Rocket Co. and Kistler Aerospace each have designs for totally reusable private rockets. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is promoting an innovative rocket design as well as championing space tourism. If such ventures are to succeed, NASA’s activities must be further curtailed and a strategy followed to back the government out of civilian space activities. Only then, in the realm of space, can that first small step for man on the moon become one giant leap for mankind.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.