July 17, 2009 -- As a child, I was fascinated by astronomy and space, and I hoped to live to see the day when men would travel to the Moon. In 1969, I managed to snag a summer high school internship at Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville, Maryland. Thus I was able to be an extremely small part of one of the greatest human achievements when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to land and walk on the lunar surface.
I was like a kid in a solar-system-sized candy store! I was able to watch the launch and splashdown from the control room; they let a kid like me just walk right in and sit in the visitors’ gallery! I was able to follow every step of the Apollo 11 mission; I still have my thick copy of the flight plan, labeled AS-506-/CSM-107/LM-5, and a hundred high-resolution lunar mapping photos.
Forty years later, I reflect on the two meanings, one political, the other philosophical, of what happened on that “Where were you when…?” date.
The Moon landing was spearheaded by NASA, a government agency created for political purposes and national prestige as well as for scientific discoveries. There were several reasons for its success in reaching the Moon ahead of the Soviets. NASA had a very focused mission and definite deadline. It had as much taxpayer money as it needed. And it had personnel from the private sector and the military who were committed to the mission and willing to heroically give their all to achieve it. These people deserve our praise and admiration.
But in the decades since the landing, NASA has become bloated, bureaucratic, and mired in the mud of the parochial political concerns of politicians. This is the fate of all government agencies, no matter the quality of the individuals working for them.
Consider the example of NASA’s current principal project. The space station was originally proposed in the mid-1980s with a price tag of about $8 billion and a projected completion date in the early 1990s. Instead, with redesigns and even downsizing, it will not be completed until 2010, at a cost of well over $100 billion. Perhaps the goal was as much to keep money flowing to contractors as it was to build a space station. Most scientists see little value in the station compared to other possible uses for that money. And, incredibly, NASA is now planning to de-orbit the station and let it burn up in the atmosphere in 2016, only five years after completion.
Just the kind of astronomical waste you’d expect from government!
NASA has failed, as it was bound to, to commercialize access to space—that is, to bring down the costs and improve the quality in the way the private sector has done for cars, air travel, televisions, personal computers, and cell phones.
Entrepreneurs are creating the infrastructure that will make us a space-faring civilization.
But private entrepreneurs have been able to overcome many barriers placed in their way by governments, and in recent years have begun to provide access to space in the same ways that innovators in the past have provided so many other goods and services. In 2004, Burt Rutan won the private $10 million Ansari X Prize by building a craft that could travel into space with a crew capacity of three, twice in a two-week period. He’s now working with airline and railroad entrepreneur Richard Branson to provide sub-orbital flights to the public at a price that will allow many people to venture outside of our atmosphere.
Elon Musk, through his company SpaceX, has designed and built private rockets from the ground up and recently launched a satellite. Robert Bigelow, through his company Bigelow Aerospace, has launched a one-third-size version of an innovative space station and plans to launch a full-sized model soon for a fraction of the cost of NASA’s orbiting white elephant.
Such entrepreneurs are creating the infrastructure that will make us a space-faring civilization and should provide the paths back to the Moon and onto Mars.
The Moon landing also highlights two views of humans and our place in the universe. When Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, the United States was in turmoil not only about then-current political issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights, but also about the means and ends of human life. As Ayn Rand noted at the time, Apollo represented the view that the human mind is our unique tool for survival and flourishing, and that joy and happiness from our achievements—most dramatically represented by the Moon landing—are our proper goals.
Another view, represented by the counter-culture of the time, played down or rejected reason in favor of more shallow emotional indulgence, questioned the value of technology, and even placed the environment on par with or above humans in value.
Today, the battle of these two visions continues, with proponents on both sides and many individuals with minds schizophrenically in both camps. Many young people who were not born when a Saturn V rocket carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the Moon love the products of the human mind—laptops, iPhones, the Internet. But many also feel guilty about the fact that technology, by definition, is altering the environment and material resources in order to serve human needs. They feel guilty about being human. They are obsessed with “going green,” not simply to ensure that air is breathable and water drinkable for humans, but also to minimize the impact of humans on the world. This is an attitude that will keep us in the mud!
But the great human achievements that are yet to come—returning to the Moon, landing on Mars, terraforming that planet’s atmosphere to make it into another habitat for humanity—will require treating human life as the true standard of value.
Neil Armstrong’s first words when stepping onto the surface of the Moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” well expressed the spirit of that mission. And those of us who shared that spirit were, in spirit, on the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin that day forty years ago.
Edward Hudgins is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society. He is an expert on the regulation of space, and editor of the book Space: The Free-Market Frontier (Cato Institute). Hudgins was formerly director of regulatory studies for the Cato Institute and editor of its Regulation magazine.