I recently toured the Johnson Space Center here, while vacationing with my retired, itinerant, sainted parents. The most striking thing at NASA’s legendary facility is a Saturn V rocket. It lies within a giant hangar, on its side, beneath incredibly bright lights. It is humongous and breathtaking.
In large red letters, the words UNITED STATES appear proudly along the vehicle’s length. It brought tears to my eyes. I thought: This is what America did, back when America did things.
Today, America has that no-can-do spirit.
The U.S. now wheezes beneath the crushing weight of lawsuits, environmental-impact reports, diversity consultants, a $17 trillion national debt, entitlement proliferation, lethargic economic growth, the lowest labor-participation rate since 1979, relentless Twitter distractions, and the mind-dissolving effects of Kardashianization.
When another Saturn V sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon in July 1969, America was a serious country. Forty-four summers later, not so much.
U.S. astronauts headed for the International Space Station now must hitchhike there on Russia’s rockets. Fare: $70.6 million each.
Beyond America’s downshift in space, innovation seems stuck in a lower gear. When does a new invention make you slap your head in astonishment — as was routine for decades? Smartphones do grow smarter. But aside from that . . .
Yes, the Saturn V was a product of big government — but not as big then as today. When Armstrong took “one small step for man,” Washington, D.C., spent 19.3 percent of GDP. By 2011: 24.5 percent.
Besides, big government used the Saturn V to accomplish “one giant leap for mankind,” as Armstrong declared. Here on Earth, that mission catapulted America well ahead of the Marxist Soviet Union.
Compare that to big government today: $787 billion squandered on a stimulus that stimulated nothing; green jobs that — at best — cost $575,000 each, and a throbbing entitlement state that expands as poverty grows. On a smaller but also irritating scale, IRS employees at a 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., occupied hotel rooms for $3,500 per night. The tax agency also spent 17,000 tax dollars for “motivational artist” Erik Wahl to paint Michael Jordan and Bono.
Meanwhile, America devolves from constitutional republic to banana republic. Federal abuse of power, spying on journalists, politically discriminatory tax agents, and official impunity thrive beneath a tropical canopy of incompetence and economic stagnation. America is becoming Venezuela with atomic weapons.
Thanks to the high stakes of the Cold War, the clench-jawed relentlessness of the Greatest Generation, or perhaps some other factor(s), America once exuded gravity. That largely has floated away.
Tracey Hannema, a Manhattan dyslexic, is suing for 50 percent more time, so she can take a medical-school admissions test in the quiet, distraction-free environment where she says she could boost her score. Will she also demand such tranquility in a hospital emergency room?
Instead of an Apollo-style celebration of achievement and individual excellence, standards slide. Soon, everyone is above average, as Garrison Keillor puts it. NBC News recently profiled Oregon’s South Medford High School and its 21 valedictorians. Alabama’s Enterprise High School has 34 students who are “first in their class.”
Young athletes often win trophies just for showing up: Don the uniform, win the prize.
Even the Academy Awards have caught this disease. In the Saturn V era, presenters said, “And the winner is . . . ” Today: “The Oscar goes to . . . ” Proclaiming winners leaves losers behind. And mansion-dwelling movie stars have a right not to feel uncomfortable.
It’s important not to over-romanticize this picture. The best and the brightest who built the Saturn V also authored the Food Stamp program that burgeons today. Medicaid barely wobbles along, 48 years after its creation. And Washington shipped some 2.6 million GIs to Vietnam. Some 58,000 returned in body bags.
Still, there is something truly inspiring even now about the words with which President John F. Kennedy extolled the Apollo program in September 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Imagine a president of the United States challenging the American people this way. These days, in a nation perpetually on break, it would seem almost rude.
Houston, we have a problem.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.