Suppose the president in 1961 had said, “The United States should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of eliminating poverty and hunger in every single corner of this country, from ocean to ocean and border to border, and make every man and woman healthy and fit right here on our part of the Earth.”
It’s true that there’s no obvious gargantuan technology angle to this goal, there’s no exact and televisable moment of achievement, there’s no special dream-inspiring process involved. Very mundane. But what if we had spent $23 billion on achieving that instead of the pointless and extremely dangerous project of “landing a man on the moon,” a bare, orbiting planetoid incapable of hosting life as we know it, and returning the poor creature “safely to Earth.” The project about which we will hear a great deal on this month’s 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk.
The whole six-decade-long U.S. space boondoggle, from 1958 to 2019, has cost this nation at least $601 billion. And what can we say we have achieved for this vast sum? Well, freeze-dried food, Tang, computer chips, memory foam, and the burials of 23 American citizens and one Israeli. There have been no significant scientific achievements and very early on in the game to sell space missions as carrying out anti-gravity experiments NASA ran out of even interesting trivial observations.
No significant information has been learned about achieving something truly important, like how humans could permanently live on nearby planets or asteroids, except that it can’t be done. NASA-generated hype — it spends about $4 million a year with a staff of 114 people on public relations — has generated some interest in this or that space probe over the years, but there has been no claim that a fly-by past Jupiter or an ongoing useless Space Station has led to anything even remotely useful on Earth. The latest boondoggle, a campaign pushed by Vice President Mike Pence in March, aims to create a base on the moon’s south pole by 2024, at a modest cost of $120 billion or so, but no one yet has been able to offer a convincing reason for doing so. Except that, like landing a man, it would be a first.
And in his July Fourth speech President Donald Trump again pledged “to plant a flag on Mars,” no more hospitable than the moon. No cost estimate was provided, but since it would be a minimum of a three-year round trip to achieve it, the figure could easily match that of the moonwalk.
But wait. Isn’t it now, after 60 years, that we should be able to take a comprehensive look at all this expensive jingoistic folly and call a halt? Forget the hype that noodling around in space, in President John F. Kennedy’s chauvinistic words, “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Let’s find something better to do.
I am not going to insist that, as in my imagined opening speech, we should actually have a goal of eliminating poverty. We have in fact been trying to do that in a sort of organized way since 1964 and the “war on poverty” has indeed cost something like $24 trillion, 40 times what we spent on space, without making much of a dent on poverty and certainly not coming close to eliminating it. That is clearly something we have no idea how to achieve. What we did achieve with all that money is to expand welfare enormously, which is all that food stamps and aid-to-children have done, and that seems to be something we’re pretty good at, but as to ending poverty it hasn’t come close.
So it doesn’t have to be that. But something, anything, else. Actually fixing roads and bridges. Ending the internal-combustion engine. Providing ownership of land and a homestead to every able-bodied person. Displacing centralized industry with localized and individual craft-making. Replacing Whole Foods with regional farmers’ markets. Or giving each grown person today their share of what NASA spent, say $3,000 each.
But you’ll say I’m dreaming.
Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books over 50 years, including “Human Scale Revisited” (2017).