Magazine | February 20, 2012, Issue

Ad Astra per Lunam

Now may not be the time, but we should go back to the moon

Newt Gingrich blundered recently by promising to build a base on the moon. Adding improbability to implausibility, he vowed that this would happen by the end of his second term. Some might think the latter a greater leap than the former.

There’s an old axiom in American politics, going back at least to Mark Hanna, if not to the Hamiltonians: When the charge against you is that you’re too undisciplined and grandiose to be president, launching a national dialogue on lunar statehood is not the best way to go. The reason is fairly simple. When large numbers of people have doubts about you, there are two ways to eliminate those doubts: confirm them or dispel them. Newt opted for the former when he hypothesized about lunar statehood. It was like responding to the charge that your fly is open by taking off your pants.

But Gingrich’s mistake was political, not intellectual or philosophical. He is right that America should go to the moon, and beyond. We may not be able to afford it right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It is because we have already wasted so much money on things that are not worth doing.

The arguments against and for aggressive space exploration boil down to two things. Call them money and poetry. Let me take them in turn.

First, a disclaimer. I am no Keynesian. I don’t think we should break windows just to employ window makers. A dollar spent by the government on Solyndra is a dollar taken out of the economy that might have been spent on something useful, like single-malt Scotch or jetpacks. I am not persuaded by those who count government makework jobs under the New Deal toward the tally of the New Deal’s “success.” According to lore, when Milton Friedman — praise be upon him — was taken to a giant canal project somewhere in Asia, he noted that among the thousands of laborers he saw no bulldozers or other earth-moving machines. Why, he asked, was it all men with shovels? The functionary leading the tour explained that it created more jobs. Well, replied Friedman, “then why not use spoons instead of shovels?”

If you’re making T-shirts, make mine say, “I’m with Milton.” Still, a moon base would be really cool.

The green-eyeshade types say you can never prove that the space program really paid for itself. You can hang only so much on Tang and ball bearings. And they do have a point when you factor in how NASA takes care to distribute its failures and inefficiencies across so many congressional districts.

But the truth is that the technological, commercial, and strategic boons of space exploration were already so obvious 40 years ago that the editors of National Review declared that the space program “checks out as a notable bargain.”

Would a moon base and an eventual road trip to Mars and beyond throw off even more technological and commercial benefits? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. But there’s a lot of stuff out there, and you’ve got to be in space to find it.

More to the point, if you’re going to go Keynesian, it might as well be on big cool stuff that helps define you as a nation for the better, inspires little kids in positive ways, encourages scientific education and training, helps create a whole generation of creative people (Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, and countless others were defined by their love of the space program), intimidates our enemies, and gets us one giant step closer to a Taco Bell on the moon. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Which, of course, bring us to the poetry.

While the editors of National Review believed the space program paid for itself in economic terms, they were quick to add that “this sort of cost analysis does not reach Apollo’s primary dimensions”:

The Apollo project marks the second fundamental change in man’s relationship to the earth and to the physical universe — the cosmos — and therefore also to himself. For two million years or so, mother earth, man’s ancestral home, was the center of the universe. In the sixteenth century the Copernican revolution transformed earth into a minor planet of a lesser star. With the flight into space, and through space to another celestial body, earth becomes — we repeat Whittaker Chambers’ winged phrase — the shore of space, no longer man’s permanent home but the starting point for his unending journey. Once the astronauts, from outside earth’s envelope, had looked back at earth — and we with them, through the electronic windows — and had slept, eaten and walked on another world, the earth and the cosmos were irreversibly transformed once more for man. Man is now ready to begin the colonization of other worlds, which is the only possible meaning of his leap into space. The next goal is self-evident in the logic of the Apollo project: a permanent manned base — a permanent dwelling — on the moon.

#page#If I may have a second T-shirt, let it proclaim that I am with them as well. I have not bothered to look it up, but I know for a fact that it cost a good deal of money to build the Vatican. Only a very lowly specimen of parsimonious ass would even bother to ask whether the Church saw sufficient return on its investment (which, of course, it did).

The same goes for the cathedrals of Europe, which were designed literally and figuratively to lift man’s gaze heavenward. The wonderful thing about cathedrals is that they are for everyone. The rich can always find inspiration. They can always acquire beauty. The poor had few such opportunities. Cathedrals were an attempt to bring light to the darkness, to inspire men collectively and individually. Throughout Europe, noblemen and city-states battled to get closer to God by building one spire higher than the next. It was a race to the heavens of a different kind.

Now, none of this means that I think we should carpet-bomb South Florida and Texas with taxpayer dollars to fund massive, inefficient bureaucracies. That, it seems to me, is the liberal approach to everything these days. Every time I accidentally turn on MSNBC, I see Rachel Maddow yelling about the Hoover Dam and how conservatives don’t want to build such things anymore. The truth, of course, is that conservatives would have far less of a problem with a Hoover Dam than the snail-darter lobby would. Indeed, when liberals talk about infrastructure spending and Keynesian multiplier effects, it seems it’s all about winterizing Grandma’s attic, covering unearned bonuses for government workers, and repairing what seem to be millions of leaky public-school roofs (one possible commercial spinoff: space-age public-school roofs that won’t leak — because it seems to me that Democrats have been complaining about leaking roofs for 40 years now).

Liberals talk about doing great things in order to get money from taxpayers, and then they use the money to cover the operating expenses of the Democratic party. They promise the moon but deliver moonshine (sometimes literally, in the form of ethanol). A friend of mine, who agrees with me that the Keynesians have an imagination deficit greater than the actual deficit they’re creating, suggests that not only should the White House have approved the Keystone pipeline, it should have promised to build alongside it a giant canal from Canada to Texas that we could all use for whitewater rafting.

I, for one, could tolerate all of the infrastructure spending the Democrats want to do, if I thought the aim was to actually get it built. But, like Friedman’s men with spoons, the point always seems to be creating the work, not getting the job done. The Pentagon was built in 16 months. The Apollo program lasted 10 years. But Boston’s Big Dig took 20 years — and they didn’t even use spoons.

That’s why Gingrich’s proposal to offer a series of massive prizes for spacefaring breakthroughs makes complete sense. The British crown offered prizes for all sorts of things, such as accurate clocks to determine longitude, and there’s no reason we couldn’t too. When Mitt Romney tried to make Gingrich look like an idiot in the most recent debate, he missed the point. “I spent 25 years in business,” Romney reminded everyone. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’”

And that’s why you have prizes. There is no short-term market incentive for putting a colony on the moon. By issuing prizes — which are paid out only when someone succeeds — you create that incentive without creating the bone-crushing bureaucracies of the modern liberal administrative state.

I don’t know whether it will be 100 years from now or 1,000, but someday historians on some extraterrestrial body will look back on the sad chapter that America is in today. They may or may not conclude that Newt Gingrich was the wrong choice at this moment. What they won’t say is that Newt Gingrich had the wrong idea about where our destiny lies.

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