The Corner

“The Sputnik Fallacy”

Yesterday, I wrote about why Sputnik and the space race were so appropriate in Obama’s SOTU:

In the wake of the moon landing, liberalism failed to understand that society is not an enormous engineering project. As Walter McDougall documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, one of the heroes of the Apollo project, NASA administrator James Webb, fed the misunderstanding. He thought the space program constituted a breakthrough in the management of large systems that could be widely replicated.

McDougall writes that “the James Webbs had, by their talent and energy, made command innovation look easy — and ‘American.’” In a letter to LBJ, Webb told the president, “The space program lies in your first area of building the Great Society.” And build it he did. “A new political symbolism had arisen,” McDougall notes, “to discredit the old verities about limited government, local initiative, balanced budgets, and individualism.”

LBJ himself remarked on the catalyzing effect of the space program. According to LBJ, people said, “‘Well, if you do that for space and send a man to the moon, why can’t we do something for grandma with Medicare?’ And so we passed the Medicare act, and we passed 40 other measures.”

Here is a thoughtful e-mail in reply:

In response to the aforementioned article I believe there are certain contextual subtleties missing from your description of the Apollo program requiring illumination.

The Apollo program delivered a series of stunning engineering accomplishments thought by many (at the time) beyond the capabilities of the state of the art. There is a common assumption that these challenges were overcome by the power of infinite funding alone.

A closer reading of the history demonstrates this position as fallacious.

Apollo’s challenge was not whether, in time, resources, technologies and talent could be brought to bear to accomplish the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth but when.

Kennedy’s challenge was to accomplish the goal within the decade. His political motivations for choosing this date are well documented and do not require retelling. What is significant are the key decisions made by individuals within the program permitting NASA to hit the date. It is these decisions with constitute the ‘soul’ of Apollo and represent the power of combining enormous public funding with an almost religious conviction to get the job done.

 I believe the two best examples of individuals assuming tremendous personal, professional and political risk in the interest of realizing on the objective are as follows:

1. George Mueller’s decision to adapt an ‘all-up’ testing regimen for the Saturn V booster 2. George Low’s decision to fly Apollo 8 in 1968

When Mueller was appointed Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Space Flight he quickly realized that the conventional approach to testing new booster technology would result in years of delays and NASA would be unable to meet the objective of a manned landing by 1969. To the chagrin of many at NASA, he instituted the policy of testing the entire booster system as a whole rather than testing each individual component separately and conjoining them over time. This approach was anathema to the engineering community and broke with all tradition. I cannot speak to the psychology of his decision-making process but it is my belief that it derived from his desire to assist in meeting specified national goals. It was selfless to the extent that had the approach been a failure he would have been vilified in his community and his future prospects imperiled. This act constitutes the kind of risk seldom taken in public service and is reflective of the times in which he lived where large public works converged with deeply-held convictions. This is the spirit which typified the Apollo program without which it is doubtful that the goal would ever have been achieved, especially considering the hostility NASA faced in congress from 1967 onwards after the fire in Apollo I.

2. George Low’s decision to fly Apollo 8 as a lunar orbital mission was similarly audacious and paved the way for a manned landing in 1969. Low, universally regarded as a brilliant yet self-effacing engineer, was cognizant of the myriad risks facing such a mission ranging from uncertainties in the navigation software and sending a spacecraft to the moon without a LEM to provide life support services in the event of a critical systems failure in the command and service module. Low staked his professional reputation on this decision. Had the mission been a failure he would have been pilloried in the engineering community and ostracized publicly. His commitment to the program is illustrative of the spirit of the men and women who worked in the Apollo program enabling Kennedy’s challenge to become a reality.

It is easy in our age of cynicism and decline to decry these accomplishments. I believe this cynicism is self-generating and, ultimately, a staging area for even deeper malaise as we sink into obscurity as Britain did in the 20th century. We should not apply a contemporary psyche to the Apollo program but allow it to speak to us on its own terms and in its own vernacular and accept and celebrate it in the context of the spirit of the age.

 Ours is a crisis of spirit and if we are to understand our history it is better to shed our bitterness and defeat and at least accept if not celebrate an age in which the very public and very private, the state and the individual, lived in harmony and accomplished great things together galvanized by a shared vision.

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