Apollo 8: The Government Got One Thing Right

Fifty years ago today, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission sent three astronauts to orbit the moon and return safely to earth. This first manned mission to the moon was planned rapidly and executed flawlessly. The Saturn V rocket was the most powerful engine ever built, yet was new and not fully tested. The computers available at the time were primitive, yet everything about the timing of burns and entry angles had to be precise. It was a stunning achievement. An American triumph. Hats off to astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders who showed unbelievable courage.

If the mission were pursued today, the president would tweet the astronauts halfway to the moon telling them to abort. The computers would jam during launch like during the Obamacare launch. Political operatives would create a dossier claiming that NASA was in cahoots with the Russians. Planning would take four years, not four months. Environmental lawsuits would threaten to shutdown the Saturn V launchpad. Labor regulations would slow astronaut training. NASA executives would be indicted for giving contracts to relatives. Federal budget squabbling would shutdown mission control, leaving the astronauts to find their own way home from the far side of the moon. It would be a mess.

Liberals and socialists want big things from the government, but Washington today is running trillion-dollar deficits and is far too dysfunctional. Paul Light here and Peter Schuck here discuss reasons why the government fails so much these days, and I discuss the core reasons for federal failure here.

Since the early Republic, the federal government has suffered from corruption, cost overruns, pork barrel spending, and vicious partisan battles. But the situation today is worse because the government has grown so huge it is impossible to manage and oversee properly. The federal government budget is 100 times larger than the budget of the average state government. Milton Friedman observed, “because government is doing so many things it ought not to be doing, it performs the functions it ought to be performing badly.”

The 1968 moonshot remains awe-inspiring, as Joel Achenbach discusses here and Robert Kurson discusses here. But looking ahead, we would get more out of government if it did less, and we would be better off putting faith in entrepreneurs for the next breakthroughs in space and much else.