If We Can Put Men On The Moon …

Cross-posted from Slobber And Spittle

[Apollo 11’s Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) on the Moon, July 20, 1969. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is in front of the LEM.] Image credit: NASA/Wikimedia

That used to be an expression you heard all the time. It was a rhetorical question that people used when they wondered why something that bothered them wasn’t fixed. If we could put a man on a moon, why couldn’t we make cars that didn’t kill their occupants when they crashed, or make a milk carton you could get open without tearing it to shreds? Why, if we could do something so difficult and expensive, couldn’t we do the simple things?

As we passed the fortieth anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, I once again have to wonder. If we could put a man on the moon forty years ago, why can’t we have universal health care now?

Putting people on the moon was anything but an easy or sure thing fifty years ago. When President John F. Kennedy announced the plan to put people on the moon in a decade, there was no assurance that it was even possible. While there were no physical reasons that it couldn’t be done, there were plenty of practical ones. At that time, the sort of rockets we’d use for such a journey were more prone to blowing up on the pad than they were to arriving at their intended destination. Computers wouldn’t fit in a house, much less inside the electronics bay of a spaceship. The trip would occur mostly in vacuum, which required extraordinary protection for both the people we were sending into space and the ships that would take them there. From an engineering perspective alone, it was a tremendous challenge.

It was a challenge in other ways, too. It was dangerous, both for those who tested and fired the rockets, and for those who rode them. It was expensive. It was stupendously, almost ridiculously, expensive. While it was certainly a worthy objective, it wasn’t strictly necessary. Yet we did it anyway.

Putting men on the moon was one of the many things we did in our competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was one of the many constructive things we did following the end of World War II. Presidents Kennedy, Harry S Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, were veterans of past world wars. They were all determined to make sure that we were never caught as unprepared as we had been for the last two wars. This was prudent, of course. What showed them to be wise, though, was their equal determination to prevent another such war. They began the United Nations to ensure that nations would have a place to resolve their differences without war. They rebuilt Europe and Japan so that they could help resist the Communist Bloc, and also so they wouldn’t be the source of another world conflict. They knew that poverty, hopelessness, and the unwillingness of national leaders to talk with each other caused wars, and they set about making sure those things would be less likely in the future. As President Kennedy said at his inauguration:

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech

They also applied those lessons at home. They created the GI Bill, which paid the way for millions of war veterans to go to college. They insisted on equal rights for minorities. They even fought a "war on poverty", and were somewhat successful. Their political contemporaries in Congress, some of whom had been to war themselves, and all of whom had experienced it in one way or another, were supportive of these efforts more often than not. For those people, Kennedy’s words that we would "pay any price, bear any burden" expressed their desires, too. Those wars had been started by countries where freedoms were few and both justice and opportunity were rare. Americans, having paid a heavy price for the last two wars, were also determined to avoid another such experience.

Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President and a former leader in Congress, found ways to pay for many of these efforts. Sometimes, those ways included making himself and his cronies rich, but he implemented much of Kennedy’s vision. You can thank Lyndon Johnson for the location of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas. Still, in those days even an avaricious bastard like LBJ could recognize that making his world a better place could make his life better.

Needless to say, the space program wasn’t just about making the world better. It was a part of our competition with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower and Kennedy both realized that if the competition grew even more intense, we might have to seize the high ground of space before the Soviets could. The space program built up the facilities and the experience necessary to do that. Strictly speaking, a civilian program for space exploration wasn’t needed, but they embraced the notion so that the hope could remain that we and the Soviets could avoid taking our arms race into orbit. In the end, they were right.

President Kennedy expressed the spirit of those times with these words:

[W]e 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.

Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort

They knew that, to use an expression of the times, a rising tide lifted all boats. They knew that government was there to do the things that were hard, the things that the markets and individuals couldn’t do on their own. They didn’t shrink from those tasks. They rebuilt Europe and Japan. They ended racial discrimination. They fought poverty as well as anyone. They sent men to the Moon.

Compare those leaders and their accomplishments to what we are seeing from our "leaders" today. The Republicans today are the epitome of the "What about me? What about my needs?" impulse. They whine about how minorities and the poor have it so much better than they do. The Democrats seem to be following their own path to uselessness. The Democrats in Congress didn’t get it done when it came to ending the useless war in Iraq. They didn’t resist the urge to pander to the telecom industry instead of bringing an outlaw President to justice. They couldn’t even handle the banking crisis. We’ve listened to these people snivel about how hard it all is to do these things, even though anyone who could hold a thought in his head knew they were necessary. You’d think they hadn’t even applied for the jobs they now have.

Their greed and shortsightedness have reversed much of the gains ordinary Americans made following the Second World War. The economic gains in particular have been erased.

Now, the best they seem to be able to do on health care is a lousy bill that won’t start working until 2013. It won’t cover millions of Americans. It will probably make the government the insurer of last resort for all the people the insurance industry doesn’t want to cover.

The best you can say about this plan is that Congress will have three years to repeal it. The Senate’s bill is shaping up to be even worse. It will make us hostages to the insurance industry for even emergency health care. If President Van Pelt doesn’t put his foot down, that’s likely to be the bill that’s passed, if our recent experience with the telecom immunity bill is any indication.

Of course, any health care bill is going to be much more expensive than the Apollo program was. That should go without saying. But it should also go without saying that adequate health care for our citizens is also necessary. Lack of proper health care for a large portion of our population is an economic drain. It’s a hazard to our well being, because pockets of poverty will also become pockets of dangerous health issues. The cost of health care is putting American companies at an increasing disadvantage with their European and Asian competitors. For both selfish and ethical reasons, truly universal health care is a necessity, not a luxury.

What’s more, in contrast to the moon landing, we know that it’s possible for an advanced country to provide medical care to all its citizens. Canada and most of the countries of western Europe have managed this feat for at least a generation. Canada pays about two thirds per capita what we do for their health care. Yet to hear members of Congress and the President tell you, it’s a feat comparable to turning lead into gold.

[The first two stages of a Saturn V rocket loom overhead to remind of us of a time when America could do the hard things.] Image credit: Kennedy Space Center

A little over ten years ago I visited the Apollo/Saturn V Museum at the Kennedy Space Center. Needless to say, for a techno-geek it was a fascinating experience. It was also a time to reflect on what we have done to build on that success. At the time, it had been nearly thirty years since the first Moon landing, and more than twenty-five since the last. In the intervening time, besides a few unmanned probes, we had only the space shuttle to show for the efforts of a quarter century.

The museum was built around the last of the Saturn V moon rockets. For someone who grew up following the manned space program, seeing that giant machine in pieces in a museum was profoundly sad. The vision, courage, and human effort that went into that endeavor had been reduced to a few signs and some leftover hardware. The effort to explore and work in space that it represented has been largely abandoned. If you want to see a monument to the shortsightedness and selfishness of the last four decades, this is as good a place to go as any.

Or you could go to just about any hospital emergency room in America, and watch as people wait for hours to be seen for ailments that they would be able to get treated for as a matter of routine in most countries.

Of all the things we’ve lost in the last few decades, the ability to recognize our problems, and to find leaders who are willing to find and implement constructive ways of fixing those problems, might be the most tragic loss of all.