Celebrate the Anniversary of the Moon Landing by Repudiating 'Moonshots'!



Forty-five years ago yesterday, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to put their boots on the ground of the moon. For many, the U.S. space program has been kind of a letdown ever since. Alas, not for statists and speechwriters. As I wrote in the February 2012 issue of Reason,

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…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.

This issue is pretty sweet. |||

Why is this a problem? Because politicians deploy the moonshot metaphor to make expensive, long-range promises. When those deadlines inevitably fail to get met, well, that's the next guy's problem. Meanwhile, just as predictably, moonshot enthusiasts fail to grok the more relevant lessons of Apollo:

[T]hese 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."

Read Reason's whole private-space special issue from 2012, including Robert Zubrin's bracing examination of whether we have become too scared about astronauts dying. (Opening sentence: "If we could put a man on the Moon, why can't we put a man on the Moon?")