“In 1962, President Kennedy succeeded in captivating Americans by explaining the advantages of being the first country to reach the moon and the dangers of allowing another nation to beat us there,” writes Mario Cuomo in USA Today, “As a result, we did beat the Russians to the moon, and every year for the past four decades, we have invested billions of dollars in space exploration with little political or public opposition and produced brilliant success.” Cuomo helpfully offered a link to Kennedy’s speech, so I followed it. After all, I’m curious — what advantages were there to having been the first country to reach the moon? In what way are Americans better-off than Canadians or Belgians in virtue of Armstrong’s voyage? The speech doesn’t actually enlighten on this front:
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? . . .
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”
These analogies aren’t crazy reasons for doing things, but they do seem like odd reasons for public-sector endeavors. Rice plays Texas for honor, but also because people will buy tickets to the game, watch it on television, etc . . . football rivalries are entertaining spectacles financed by the people who find them entertaining. Mallory joined the Alpine Club to pursue his passion for mountain-climbing, he didn’t get a job at the Royal Mountaineering Agency.
I’m not one of these “open outer space to more private-sector activity and we’ll have colonies on Titan in seven weeks” people but it does seem to me that there’s probably a sufficient mix of legitimate commercial uses for space and rich eccentric space enthusiasts (and, of course, there’s the intersection of the two: providing space-related commercial services to wealthy eccentrics) to keep human activity going out there without giant subsidies to the aerospace industry. A general public-sector pullback from outer space in favor of NGOs and business enterprises would be a natural corollary to the principle of outer space as international ad demilitarized. The Bush administration, in keeping with longstanding Air Force priorities, seems more inclined in the opposite direction.