A Magnificent, Glorious, Soul-Stirring Moment
In National Review’s July 6, 2009 issue (and currently posted on NRO as well), John Derbyshire describes the 1969 moon landing as a “magnificent folly,” and later describes it as a “glorious, soul-stirring folly.” While I would also describe it as “magnificent,” “glorious” and “soul-stirring,” I take exception to describing Project Apollo as “folly.”
Like Mr. Derbyshire, I also have strong memories of the moon landing, even though I am a few years younger than he. I have clear memories of sitting in my parent’s living room and watching the ghostlike image of Neal Armstrong stepping off the Eagle’s ladder onto the surface of the moon. I was nine years old, had no interest in astronomy, and was several years away from reading my first science fiction novel, but even so, as I watched those snowy images from 250000 miles away, I, like Mr. Derbyshire, thought the world had changed forever.
Yes, it was a naïve thought; nothing changed at all. Nothing followed but five more landings, followed by a human-killing Space Shuttle, and a Space Station to which we parade an endless line of women and men to do nothing more ground-breaking or edifying than study how their own bodies react to being in space. (Almost a literal case of “navel gazing.” Republican members of Congress might make ideal astronauts in the age of the Space Station). No new thoughts have been stirred in the minds of men, no dramatic new fortunes have been made. There has been no “wagon train to the stars,” which is probably, if I could have found the words, what my nine-year-old mind was expecting to follow in 1969.
Mr. Derbyshire thinks the fact that nothing followed was due to the nature of the endeavor; hence his description of it as “folly.” But the fact that Apollo didn’t change the world may not have been because Apollo was pointless, but because by 1969, the world itself had so changed that Apollo could have no impact on it. There was a vast sociological chasm separating the moment that President Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon in 1961, and the moment it actually happened. Following, roughly, the Tet Offensive of 1968, a new America had been born. The new America loathed itself, and looked upon technological progress as a threat rather than as a blessing. The July 1969 moon landing may well have been the technological and sociological high-water mark of American culture, but it was an anachronism even as it happened. The real America, by then, was much more clearly represented by the youth who booed the announcement of the moon landing at concurrent rock concert, and who a month later flocked to Woodstock to participate in an orgy of self-congratulation and self-indulgence.
A society that had not invested in self-loathing would have looked with unbelievable pride on the magnificent accomplishment of putting a man on the moon. It would have followed it up with a moon base, and with a manned mission to Mars, and in the process produced new knowledge, new technology, new resources, and — quite probably — extraordinary new wealth that would have made Bill Gates look like a member of the middle class. Instead, America turned away from all that. The proposal of Vice President Agnew’s task force, calling for a far-reaching manned space program to follow Apollo, was summarily dismissed. NASA was only able to keep a manned space program — of sorts — alive by a con known as the Space Shuttle. The Space Station, when finally built, ended up doing science less noteworthy than that performed during the brief Skylab missions of the early 1970s. Technology became evil, to the point where today we can’t drill for oil, mine for coal, build a new power plant or even build a new road for fear of the unspeakable evils that will follow. The modern American left, on display in its nascent form at Woodstock, now totally dominates our culture and our government, and looks with loathing on science and technology, unless the “science” involves suppressing any question of the unassailability of Natural Selection, dissecting a living human embryo, or using the “truth” of global warming to dismantle our economy.
Perhaps, from a purist standpoint, having large government programs to send humans into space is not in keeping with conservative ideals on the role of limited government. But then again, perhaps not. Human history indicates that the government, even a limited government, has an important role to play in human exploration and discovery. Some important endeavors require economic resources that only central governments can bring together. Columbus, after all, went to a head of state to bankroll his effort, not a rich Venetian or Florentine merchant. The transcontinental railroad was the brainchild of the first Republican president and was heavily subsidized by the government. Lewis and Clark’s expedition was a military mission and the brainchild of one of the greatest champions of limited government in human history. The fact that all those missions led to so much more, and Apollo to nothing, may have more to do with the nature of our times, than any “folly” in the moon landing. The fault lay not our quest for the stars, but in ourselves.