TFH 4/20: Where We’ve Been, and Where We Need to Go Back

Today’s edition of Their Finest Hour is going to take a slightly different tack from the regular daily features. It is certainly a reminder of American greatness and historical accomplishment and should also serve as a message that speaks to how we’ve let our greatness slip away. It also serves to me as a reminder of work left undone, and that’s something I’m disappointed in myself for.

Forty years ago tonight, at 21:23:35 Eastern Time, Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke landed on the Moon at the Descartes Highlands in LM-11. Ken Mattingly orbited overhead in CSM-13. Young and Duke became just the ninth and tenth men to walk on the Moon, spending over 20 hours exploring the lunar surface across three EVAs during a stay on the Moon of nearly three days.

Three and a half years ago, I started – and then let slip – a series here for “Apollo+40”, a celebration of the United States’ travels to our Moon forty years later. Sadly, as was true for our Nation forty years ago, after the triumph of Apollo 11 and the first lunar landing my attention waned.

Yesterday, NASA handed over one of the three surviving space shuttles – Discovery (OV-103) – to the Smithsonian Institution. Presently, the United States does not possess a manned spaceflight capability. In my view, this is inexcusable. The decline in our space program is merely a symptom. I fear with all my being that the United States isn’t just losing its greatness: we may be losing our ability to get it back.

When Apollo 16 landed on the Moon, I was 11 months old. I vaguely remember watching the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 on television, and remember quite vividly watching the early space shuttle launches in the 1980s. Growing up, I looked to the skies. I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. It was an inspiration for greatness.

We went to the Moon! We did it forty years ago barely out of the vacuum tube era of electronics. We sent nine missions to the Moon (one flyby, two orbital missions, and six landings). The twelve Americans who walked on it are the only humans to walk someplace other than Earth. Look around you. In front of you is a piece of technology that whether it’s a computer, smartphone, or tablet probably contains more computing power than existed in all of NASA to support the Apollo program. We have accomplished so much and we have the potential to accomplish so much more.

Why did we do it? Why risk national treasure and prestige on so challenging a venture? President Kennedy summed it up best in his speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. 

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. 

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation. 

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. 

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 many 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? 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

“[T]he vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first” and “we intend to win”. In many circles today, these are evil words. We are told that the United States is no better than any other nation. We are told that we are selfish and greedy because we have been successful as both a Nation and as individuals.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, Project Apollo cost somewhere between $109 billion and $170 billion spread over 1959 to 1973, an average of around $10 billion a year give or take in today’s dollars. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, in 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency had an annual budget of $10.486 billion. We are spending more every year now on stifling industry and productivity, and destroying the private property rights of landowners, with environmental regulation enforcement than we spent to build a program that was the envy of and awestruck the entire world.

The entirety of Apollo could have been paid for by the deficit the United States Government runs today in just one month. We have descended from a triumph of mankind to a disgrace.

I am not ashamed that the United States is the greatest society ever. It’s a fact. We have done more, built more, accomplished more than any other. I believe we still can, but we’re going to have to scream our desires for greatness as often as we can. We have to insist that the leviathan that our government has become both gets out of the way and restrains itself to programs and duties that accomplish things rather than trample our rights and natural progress. We must be determined, and we must not be deterred.

We will never solve all the ills of the human condition and society through government. We will never gain prosperity by being taxed. We as a Nation and as Americans will never regain our greatness and set us back on our path of destiny unless we dare to be great. It doesn’t matter whether you go to the Moon or simply stay at home and raise your children: never be ashamed that as Americans we’re the best, always have been, and hopefully for the sake of mankind, we’ll rise up from where we’ve been dragged down to and continue to lead humanity to greatness.

Yes, Apollo was a government program. It was unlike any government program really before or since because it relied heavily on private industry and innovation to accomplish its goals. It was private citizens and businesses and all the ingenuity and resourcefulness they could bring to bear that got us to the Moon. Government didn’t get us to the Moon – Americans did.

On September 16, 1969 – almost exactly seven years after Kennedy’s speech at Rice – the Apollo 11 astronauts addressed a joint session of Congress. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins said the following:

Mr. President, members of Congress, and distinguished Guests: 

One of the many things I have very much enjoyed about working for the space agency, and for the Air Force, is that they have always given me free rein, even to the extent of addressing this most august assemblage without coaching, without putting any words in my mouth. Therefore, my brief remarks are simply those of a free citizen living in a free country and expressing thoughts that are purely my own. 

Many years before there was a space program my father had a favorite quotation, “He who would bring back the wealth of the Indies must take the wealth of the Indies with him.” This we have done. We have taken to the moon the wealth of this nation, the vision of its political leaders, the intelligence of its scientists, the dedication of its engineers, the careful craftsmanship of its workers and the enthusiastic support of its people. We have brought back rocks and I think it’s a fair trade. For just as the Rosetta Stone revealed the language of ancient Egypt, so may these rocks unlock the mystery of the origin of the moon, of our earth, and even of our solar system. 

During the flight of Apollo 11, in the constant sunlight between the earth and the moon, it was necessary for us to control the temperature of our space craft by a slow rotation not unlike that of a chicken on a barbeque spit. As we turned, the earth and the moon alternately appeared in our windows. We had our choice. We could look toward the moon, toward Mars, toward our future in space–toward the new Indies–or we could look back toward the earth, our home, with its problems spawned over more than a millennium of human occupancy. 

We looked both ways. We saw both, and I think that is what our nation must do. 

We can ignore neither the wealth of the Indies nor the realities of the immediate needs of our cities, our citizens, or our civics. We cannot launch our planetary probes from a springboard of poverty, discrimination or unrest. But neither can we wait until each and every terrestrial problem has been solved. Such logic two hundred years ago would have prevented expansion westward past the Appalachian Mountains, for assuredly the Eastern Seaboard was beset by problems of great urgency then, as it is today. 

Man has always gone where he has been able to go. It’s that simple. We will continue pushing back his frontier, no matter how far it may carry him from his homeland. 

Some day in the not-too-distant future, when I listen to an earthling step out onto the surface of Mars or some other planet just as I listened to Neil [Armstrong] step out onto the surface of the moon, I hope I hear him say, “I come from the United States of America!”

This December it will be 40 years since the last humans walked on the Moon. Collins’ “not-too-distant future” looks increasingly distant with each passing day. Whether or not the next human to step somewhere other than the Earth proclaims their American pride is dubious at best.

The United States couldn’t execute Apollo today as our society and government currently stands, and that’s a tragedy that not only belittles us but holds back all of mankind from what can and should be accomplished.

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