Goodnight Moonshot

Turning the lights out on a government-aggrandizing metaphor


"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon," President Barack Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union speech. "The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Was the president rising to the challenge of some new technology that America's adversaries were mastering? Was he doubling down on the vague, far-off promise by his predecessor to send a mission to Mars? No. He was talking about government loans for solar panels, federal spending on research, and the even more prosaic work of getting his preferred budget passed.

As The Washington Times pointed out at the time, "The sense of national purpose that followed the Sputnik launch was not based on an abstract sense of the need for better education programs; it was a national security emergency….[Obama's] 'Sputnik moment' is a lifeless call for more aimless government programs and regulatory meddling." And as the country has since learned, with the Solyndra scandal and an endless series of unsatisfying budget confrontations, delivering a top-down solar energy breakthrough is as maddeningly elusive as the once-routine act of getting an annual appropriations bill out of the Senate Budget Committee.

These are failures not just of governance but of language. Ever since President John F. Kennedy's famous "Man on the Moon" speech in May 1961, and especially since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) delivered on JFK's "goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth," succeeding presidents and the commentators who egg them on have been using the moonshot as a metaphor for successively less urgent, scientific, and attainable goals.

Three weeks after Neil Armstrong announced that "the Eagle has landed," President Richard Nixon declared that "abolishing poverty, putting an end to dependency—like reaching the moon a decade ago—may seem impossible. But in the spirit of Apollo we can lift our sights and marshal our best efforts." Not only is the American landscape still blemished by poverty and dependency on government, including sickening amounts of dependency by the rich, but the War on Poverty launched by Nixon's predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, turned out to be one of the great launch failures in policy history.

The moon's metaphorical record has only waned since then. In 1971 Nixon fired his rhetorical rockets on cancer: "The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease." Cancer has since taken some hits, but is still not beaten. Both Jimmy Carter, in his notorious 1979 "malaise" speech, and George H.W. Bush, in his less remembered 1992 State of the Union address, used Apollo as an almost desperate reminder to depressed Americans that they can still be great. "There's been talk of decline," Bush said. "Someone even said our workers are lazy and uninspired. And I thought: Really? You go tell Neil Armstrong standing on the moon."

There's no escaping the moonshot in contemporary political discourse. GOP presidential contender Herman Cain (who was on the verge of withdrawing from the nomination contest as this issue was going to press) used it in February 2011 as proof we can and must "secur[e] the border": "We put a man on the moon," he said, "so this isn't that hard!" Bill Clinton, in his exhaustive (and exhausting) post-presidency, has been fond of such formulations as "we need to make fixing climate change as politically sexy as putting a man on the moon." The whole thesis of the bestseller That Used to Be Us by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum is that the United States has lost its ability to do such great things as, well, you know what.

As authors William D. Eggers and John O'Leary argued in their 2009 Harvard Business Press book If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, the lunar metaphor has experienced far too much mission creep. "The moon landings were without a doubt inspirational, but did they teach too much of a good lesson?" Eggers and O'Leary wrote. "Don't we need some realism as well as optimism? Simply because you really want to reach a destination doesn't mean you are going to get there. If President Kennedy had challenged us to send a man to Mars within the decade, we'd have lost that challenge. Just because government put a man on the moon doesn't mean it can do something really hard."

There are few things political executives love more than making promises to meet lofty goals by deadlines that will arrive long after they have exited the scene. Under laws passed and edicts signed half a decade ago, and regardless of cost or other feasibility issues, California in 2020 must acquire one-third of its energy from renewable sources. "By 2020," President Obama said in a 2010 speech, "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Politicians want to bask in the glow of Kennedyesque vision and determination, without getting hung up on the practical details.

But as Eggers and O'Leary point out, these transparent attempts to glom onto JFK's glamour skip right over the 35th president's real-world pragmatism. Consider this passage from Kennedy's terse "Man on the Moon" speech: "This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread….It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel."

"It is remarkable today," Eggers and O'Leary comment, "to read the words of an American president, during a major address to Congress, talking about the bureaucratic challenges of a major endeavor. Interagency rivalries? High turnover?" One of the keys to making the moonshot was grounding it in reality by extending the original 1967 deadline to the end of the 1960s and doubling the original estimated budget when it became apparent that initial projections weren't viable. Promises detached from reality, like missions detached from concrete accomplishments, are recipes for cynicism, waste, and failure.

This issue of reason is about how mission waste and failure suffocated the very accomplishment Americans keep using as a talisman: sending man into the final frontier. In the provocative "How Much Is an Astronaut's Life Worth?" (page 28), Robert Zubrin argues that focusing on safety to the exclusion of concrete goals has handcuffed human spaceflight. In "A Twinkle of Hope" (page 20), Rand Simberg applauds the baby steps taken by the Obama administration to undo decades of bad space policy but also lists the bold steps required to get a new generation of exploration off the launch pad. In "Science Fiction Faces Facts" (page 44), Contributing Editor Gregory Benford shows how narrative fiction has moved on from a NASA-driven universe and begun reasserting its role in igniting the dreams of people who refuse to be bounded by the atmosphere. More optimistically, Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward's "Rocket Men" (page 34) celebrates the practical-minded and mostly private actors who are building rockets, setting goals, establishing competitions, and supplanting an unwieldy bureaucracy with individual acts of accomplishment.

This long-promised future of private space innovation has become possible only because policy makers have recognized their own operational limitations, especially when compared to private derring-do. Sometimes you have to declare the old dream dead before the new one takes its place. Now if only we could apply that metaphor somewhere….

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).