When I saw the rocket explode just off the pad on Tuesday, it was like a flashback to the late 1950s and very early 1960s. NASA had several embarrassing failures trying to catch up with the Soviet Union — then it did, surpassed it, and the United States landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. I felt that flashback and thought, in the brave new world of “space” exploration for profit, even the most remedial lessons are having to be relearned.
I use space in quotation marks because the rocket by Orbital Sciences, carrying a satellite from Redmond-based Planetary Resources, was headed to the International Space Station (ISS) in low-earth orbit. You know, where Yuri Gagarin went in 1961 and John Glenn followed a year later.
Or maybe you don’t know. The median age of the country is 37 years. I am old enough to remember when the United States had a real space program — even the unmanned probes NASA is still launching have their roots in that grand leap forward. It wasn’t for profit, although hundreds of private contractors were involved. It was surely part of the Cold War and national prestige. But it was mostly for discovery, science and the public good.
And remember, we went to the moon while fighting the Vietnam War, facing riots in American cities and funding the Great Society. It was not the Donna Reed Show. At the same time, the American middle class was at its zenith and American business was the envy of the world, actually producing useful things and good, secure jobs. (“Financial services” did not rule the economy).
But something had to give as recessions, stagflation and — with the exception of the Clinton years — “starve the beast” tax cuts reduced federal revenue:
Indeed, many things have had to give, especially because of the added cost of trillions spent on military adventures since 2001. Among then has been NASA’s budget:
With the premature end of Apollo without similarly ambitious programs, and then the space shuttle, vast amounts of talent, institutional knowledge and scale have been lost.
It’s not indefensible to use the private sector as a taxi service to the ISS (we’ll see if there’s real oversight — we certainly haven’t had problems with other areas of privatization). And the space dreams of billionaires are preferable to rent-seeking. But a real space program requires a national commitment: vision, purpose, funding and a belief in science by a majority of Americans. That’s unlikely in today’s America.
An interesting paradox considering that someday humans may need a Plan B as we destroy this planet with fossil-fuel emissions.
In the meantime, party on like it’s 1999. But not like it’s 1969.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
Fast traders, cheaters
Let’s call a thing what it is
Or remain suckers