Monday, August 10, 2009

lunar lunacy (or, let them eat moon rocks)

I have, for many years, considered myself a lunar skeptic. No, I am not one of the "6 percenters" previously mentioned in this space that believe the moon landings never happened; I'm just a bit leery as to why.

The Cold War mentality that provided the original context for man's alighting on the moon cannot be understated: the can-do, damn-the-cost attitude the defined the lunar mission was born out of a life-or-death struggle with the Soviets in a race to show technological superiority; the second act of that race was mutual obliteration with nuclear weapons. With Armageddon as your second act, it's obviousthat you pull no punches in placing a man on the moon.

Celebrating (and mourning) the 40th anniversary of the moon landing this summer, Tom Wolfe argued in a July 18 New York Times Op-Ed piece that the lunar landing served as a death-knell for man's journey into the stars, rather than the anticipatory first step to bigger and better things:
For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by
presidents and the Congress.
This is, apparently, a massive failure of vision on the part of our leaders: their inability to see past the quibbles of the common defense and upkeep, as well as myriad other trivial matters, has doomed us to remain imprisoned surface of the Earth.

We can all just stop tripping the light fantastic about the moon landing. Along with the Marshall Plan, it is one of the few aspects to the global pissing contest also known as the Cold War we rhapsodize, because buying off Third World dictators and ignoring their crimes isn't as inspiring as a few white guys hopping on gray dust wearing ziploc bags with helmets attached.

In 1969, 7.7 million American children lived in poverty. In 2007, that number was 13.5 million. It might seem a bit specious to argue that the NASA budget and Head Start program participate alone in a zero-sum game (especially since Department of Defense expenditures dwarf every other government program in the Federal budget); but the argument could be made that it's callous to rhapsodize about the wonders of space travel when so many go hungry in the wealthiest country on the globe.

Craig Nelson's excellent book about the Apollo 11 Mission, "Rocket Men,"does a good job of balancing wonder of humanity's most astounding feat of engineering with a clear-eyed appraisal of the unique geo-political situation that allowed such treasure to be devoted to a singular endeavor. Calling upon military resources, and using the rocket technology from a former Nazi who exploited concentration camp slave labor to loft V2 rockets on London (Wernher Von Braun), the prize -- dazzling the world with space missions that proved democracy's superiority over Communism justified cutting corners in promoting a "civilian" scientific effort that was anything but.

Nelson summarizes the prevalent thinking among the Washington Cold Warriors sweating appropriations bills:
Key political support for the inauguration of NASA would in part rise from the belief that its shining example to developing nations would help keep them from being infected by communism.
Not to mention the evidence space rockets could provide to Moscow that the United States stood ready, willing, and able to rain down indiscriminate death upon military and civilian populations alike with nuclear weapons:
What is affectionately and nostalgically remembered now as the Space Age might more accurately be called the Rocket Age -- with rockets in underground silos, rockets aboard submarines, rockets that were state secrets, and rockets that were public spectacles.
In fact, as Nelson notes, "The United States alone spent $5.5 trillion on its nuclear missile program." NASA was not only a thin veneer of civilian scientific exploration painted over what was essentially a military rocket project, it was also a sop to the aerospace defense industry, which had exploded in the wake of World War Two and the Korean War, but had difficulty finding its own peace dividend.
[O]ne reason for establishing NASA was a fear that aerospace defense contractors needed government support, as they were falling into a postwar recession.
(As if Presidents Bush and Obama invented corporate welfare.) Perhaps the person we should blame for creating the zero-sum game fallacy that I continuously cite and disown is the same man who flagged it in the first place: President Eisenhower in his farewell address. The words of the great man himself:
We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual --is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.
Eisenhower's pitting civilian against military needs dates back to 1953:
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this; a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people. [...] This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
(Then again, maybe it's just cause the General was an Army guy.)

To be clear: the pooh-poohing of the impurity of NASA's origins is my own, and not Nelson's; in his estimation the wondrous accomplishments more than outweigh the underhanded motives. In 1954, as President Eisenhower was trying to convince the American people that under a perpetual state of war was not any way to live, a classified overview of American covert operations, the so-called Doolittle Report, asserted that
We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination. [...] There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. [Americans must] learn to be able not to be good, [and the American public] must be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.
(In the wake of Vice President Cheney's ultimately successful attempts to turn American policy over to "the dark side" in pursuit of the Global War on Terror (a constant war, with no clear end in sight), it's easy to see which school of thought won out.)

But we have this lingering problem: as much as we can say that NASA is bloated, wasteful, anachronistic, and a waste of resources, we have these spectacular pictures; pictures of men leaping on the surface of the moon, pictures of a blue globe of life surrounded by the heaping nothingness of space, pictures (thanks to the Hubble telescope) that date back to the creation of existence as we know it. And it's hard to say those are, objectively, useless items.

We also have the words of the returning Apollo Astronauts themselves. Buzz Aldrin, addressing congress in 1969:
What this country does with the lessons of Apollo applies to domestic problems, and what we do in further space exploration programs will determine just how giant a leap we have taken.
There wasn't enough fuel on earth to bring us all to the stars; that the missions themselves did not inspire us to think bigger, or act better, says more about us than about the billions of Federal dollars that could have been spent in other ways.

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