Gary North’s Reality Check (Dec. 27, 2012)
This article is in the Technology Review. It is typical of an engineer’s view of social problems. Each of the big ones has a technological solution, he says. But they rarely do.
The article began with the 1969 walk on the moon. That was the most spectacular and most expensive PR stunt in American history. It had no viable payoff to the voters, other than PR. It was a kind of fireworks show.
This required the greatest peacetime mobilization in the nation’s history. Although NASA was and remains a civilian agency, the Apollo program was possible only because it was a lavishly funded, semi-militarized project: all the astronauts (with one exception) had been Air Force pilots and naval aviators; many of the agency’s middle-aged administrators had served in the Second World War in some capacity; and the director of the program itself, Samuel Philips, was an Air Force general officer, drafted into service because of his effective management of the Minuteman missile program. In all, NASA spent $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today’s dollars, on Apollo; at its peak in the mid-1960s, the agency enjoyed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.
What was the payoff?
Why did they go? They brought back little–841 pounds of old rocks, Aldrin’s smuggled aesthetic bliss, and something most of the 24 emphasized: a new sense of the smallness and fragility of our home. (Jim Lovell, not untypically, remembered, “Everything that I ever knew–my life, my loved ones, the Navy–everything, the whole world, was behind my thumb.”) The cynical, mostly correct answer is that Kennedy wanted to demonstrate the superiority of American rocketry over Soviet engineering: the president’s challenge was made in May of 1961, little more than a month after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. But it does not adequately explain why the United States made the great effort it did, nor does it convey how the lunar landings were understood at the time.
There was a religious impulse. “Apollo was not seen only as a victory for one of two antagonistic ideologies. Rather, the strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology.”
This was part of a myth, one which still endures: “Solving complex social problems is as easy as solving technologically defined engineering problems.” Solution: “we need more government programs.”
Since Apollo 17’s flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.
It is nonsense today. It was nonsense in 1969. I wrote an article on this a few months after the moon landing.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF SPACESHIP EARTH
The flight of Apollo XI was probably the most stupendous technological achievement of the decade. (Unquestionably, it was the most stupendous bureaucratic achievement of the decade: scheduled for 1969, it actually took place in 1969!) Editorials in every paper in America, I suppose, have lauded the flight as the monument to the capacities of mankind to conquer nature and order our affairs, the assumption being that the ability to fly a rocket implies the ability to organize a society, in theory if not in practice. The flight has brought to the forefront that old cliché, “Man’s scientific wisdom has outrun his moral wisdom”; we can go to the moon, yet somehow we have failed to solve the problem of mass poverty in the United States. . . .
Unfortunately, the planners can never be neutral; hence, their application of technology to the affairs of men cannot be neutral. Planning involves the allocation of scarce resources, and some programs must be accepted while others are rejected. The planners must use a scale of values–non-empirical, a priori moral values–in the administration and formulation of their plans. . . .
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)