Day By Day

Monday, July 20, 2009

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

that men first walked on the moon.

It was a marvelous achievement. I will carry the memory of watching it as long as I live. We are perfectly in the right to be proud of what we did. But amidst all the celebration it is also good to note what was not accomplished.

Critics have pointed out, and they are right to do so, that the moon missions cost too much and had far too little payoff. That from the beginning the space program was mired in politics, international, national, and institutional, that severely constrained it. The program was sold as a "race to the moon" that was important to the prosecution of the Cold War. It wasn't. Domestically it was, and still is, held up as a triumph of governmental management, but many critics have pointed to the numerous inefficiencies and excesses associated with the project. Moreover, they have noted that NASA crowded out other, potentially far more valuable enterprises. And, the decision to emphasis manned space flight, driven almost exclusively by public relations considerations, severely limited what could be accomplished in space. I would recommend that anyone interested in the subject read Walter A. McDougall's "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age" (Basic Books, 1985).

It is important to recognize that the space program, and particularly the Moon landing were severely flawed and ultimately non-productive enterprises for the simple reason that they have been held up time and again as a model for all manner of programs and imperatives. "If they can put a man on the Moon, they can certainly..." is heard over and over in nearly every imaginable context. That is precisely the wrong way to view the Moon landing. If anything, the story of Apollo 11 should stand as a cautionary tale rather than an inspiration, illustrating the wrong way of doing things.