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.