Apollo Thoughts From The Economist

There will be many retrospectives this week on the half-century anniversary of Kennedy’s speech. Here’s one from The Economist, that reads like they’ve been reading me for a while:

To many Americans, neglecting human space flight this way looks like a sorry end to the glorious chapter Kennedy opened half a century ago. He set out to make America’s achievements in space an emblem of national greatness, and the project succeeded. Yet it did not escape the notice of critics even at the time that this entailed an irony. The Apollo programme, which was summoned into being in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market system, succeeded by mobilising vast public resources within a centralised bureaucracy under government direction. In other words, it mimicked aspects of the very command economy it was designed to repudiate.

Exactly. Well, not exactly. One of the reasons that they did it this way (as I pointed out in my recent debate with Bob Zubrin) was that it wasn’t intended to be a demonstration of the free-market system:

There was a reason that Apollo ended over forty years ago. It had accomplished its mission, which was not to go to the moon, but to demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior to totalitarian communism in terms of technological prowess, which it did when Apollo 8 flew around the moon in 1968, and the Soviets gave up and pretended they had never been racing.

In any event, few people have any conception of how much Apollo warped our perception of how to explore and develop space, because they have no other framework in which to think about it. But that will change over the next few years as private entities start to show how Americans do space in a more traditional American way.

18 thoughts on “Apollo Thoughts From The Economist

  1. Leland

    I was going to complain abit about this line and your free market comment:

    It had accomplished its mission, which was not to go to the moon, but to demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior to totalitarian communism in terms of technological prowess

    I don’t think we ever would have gone to the moon in the past 4 decades under a free market system. The demand/market simply isn’t big enough, which is what you say, “space isn’t important enough”. So I think the “demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior” was a little rough for what I think was truly Kennedy’s intention (his supporters probably felt that way though).

    However, before responding, I read the whole thing. The last paragraph puts the tone right with me. Particularly this sentence:

    But in some ways it was peculiarly un-American—almost, you might say, an aberration born out of the unique circumstances of the cold war.

  2. Pro Libertate

    I agree that Apollo was an exercise in government, not the free market, but one thing we should keep in mind is that the contractors who made Apollo possible were created by the free market and weren’t quite the established jobs programs that they are today. That’s something we had that the Soviets didn’t.

    That said, a sustainable presence outside of LEO isn’t going to happen without the private sector taking the lead.

  3. Jim Davis

    …because they have no other framework in which to think about it.

    A failure of the private sector. Certainly publicly funded megaprojects are no way to develop new industries but they at least can demonstrate at some level technical feasibility.

    The private telecommunications industry didn’t need forty years to realize there are advantages to satellites.

    Why has it taken forty years for private manned space to get to the launch pad?

    You can look at the lack of private manned space over the last forty years as a market failure or even as a market success but blaming Apollo is just scapegoating.

  4. Bill Hensley

    The cold war civilian space race was a proxy for military competition, and thus proved exactly the relevant point: our military industrial complex can beat your military industrial complex. It had the nice side effect of achieving an ennobling goal that all mankind could take pride in. Even, I suspect (grudgingly) the Soviets.

  5. Charles A. Lurio

    Hah, Rand, more likely the Economist has been reading “The Lurio Report,” for reasons I won’t get into in public. Thought it’s true that they may know about you because of my references to your commentaries.

    :-)

  6. Ian

    Jim – the telecommunications industry didn’t quite take 40 years to realize the advantages of satellites, but it was certainly close to it. Almost all the early satellite projects were government or intergovernmental projects. Intelsat and Inmarsat have been privately owned companies for barely more than a decade now. Before that, they were merely a place for governments to sink money into without regards to financial return. It took private entrepreneurs like Rene Anselmo (founder of Panamsat) to rudely kick open the door for commercial satellite operators. Space needs its own Anselmo now to kick open the door for commercial space markets.

  7. Larry J

    Jim – the telecommunications industry didn’t quite take 40 years to realize the advantages of satellites, but it was certainly close to it.

    Telstar was owned by AT&T and launched in 1963. Hughes did a lot of the development work on Syncom before getting a government contract. It’s true that a lot of the early communications satellite work was done for the government but civilian efforts were also underway even in the 1960s and early 1970s. Once companies were convinced that they could make money with commsats, they stepped up to launch their own. From that last linked article:

    1945 Arthur C. Clarke Article: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays”
    1955 John R. Pierce Article: “Orbital Radio Relays”
    1956 First Trans-Atlantic Telephone Cable: TAT-1
    1957 Sputnik: Russia launches the first earth satellite.
    1960 1st Successful DELTA Launch Vehicle
    1960 AT&T applies to FCC for experimental satellite communications license
    1961 Formal start of TELSTAR, RELAY, and SYNCOM Programs
    1962 TELSTAR and RELAY launched
    1962 Communications Satellite Act (U.S.)
    1963 SYNCOM launched
    1964 INTELSAT formed
    1965 COMSAT’s EARLY BIRD: 1st commercial communications satellite
    1969 INTELSAT-III series provides global coverage
    1972 ANIK: 1st Domestic Communications Satellite (Canada)
    1974 WESTAR: 1st U.S. Domestic Communications Satellite
    1975 INTELSAT-IVA: 1st use of dual-polarization
    1975 RCA SATCOM: 1st operational body-stabilized comm. satellite
    1976 MARISAT: 1st mobile communications satellite
    1976 PALAPA: 3rd country (Indonesia) to launch domestic comm. satellite
    1979 INMARSAT formed.
    1988 TAT-8: 1st Fiber-Optic Trans-Atlantic telephone cable

  8. Dean

    I was kind of young at the time and not really paying much attention, but the way I recall it, government control of telesats came about because socialist european governments didn’t want it to be controlled by AT&T. So they created Intelsat and forced everybody to join, creating a monopoly.

  9. gbaikie

    i/ It had accomplished its mission, which was not to go to the moon, but to demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior to totalitarian communism in terms of technological prowess i/

    I don’t think we ever would have gone to the moon in the past 4 decades under a free market system. The demand/market simply isn’t big enough, which is what you say, “space isn’t important enough”. So I think the “demonstrate that democratic socialism was superior” was a little rough for what I think was truly Kennedy’s intention (his supporters probably felt that way though).

    I don’t think it’s like we could go to moon now “under a free market system”.
    I think we need the govt agency called NASA to explore the moon. And we need NASA to explore Mars and lots of other things in space needs to be explored.
    We need the govt to explore space.
    NASA could explored the moon 40 years ago- and not flags and footprints [stunts] with some science experiments included.
    Instead what NASA did was try to operation a business, a govt business called the Shuttle program.
    It could have chosen instead explored the moon on the Gemini model, and bought all it’s launches for private sector.

    All NASA managed to do is make the French look good, by trying to kill all private launch so it would more traffic for the shuttle- the French weren’t stupid enough to trust any govt program to such thing.
    The French/European socialist govts were more “free market originated” then the NASA/USA govt- they focused on the one market in space- GEO/LEO sats.
    Though being socialist one could not expect them to actually start any markets on space, but at least they would exploit them.

  10. Trent Waddington

    I don’t think we ever would have gone to the moon in the past 4 decades under a free market system. The demand/market simply isn’t big enough.

    That’s exactly the point.. there’s no demand because NASA does it. NASA nearly killed comsats and basically has killed the market for weather sats. Constant government intervention is what makes space unimportant.

  11. Larry J

    Heh. We were even better at communism than the actual communists were, eh?

    Pehaps. Based on a recent visit to China and Vietnam, I’d say that they’re doing a better job at capitalism (of a sort) than we are at the moment.

  12. Al

    I’d say that they’re doing a better job at capitalism (of a sort) than we are at the moment.

    I’d agree there too: At least at the top of the system their crony capitalism is actually for “plausibly sensible crap”, and on the low-end the bureaucracy hasn’t caught up to making kids’ lemonade stands something that has to be approved by four separate agencies.

  13. Larry J

    In Nha Trang, Vietnam, it seemed that just about everyone had a small display of products for sell in front of their home. If they weren’t running an actual business, they were making crafts and other things for sale. People hustled (both in a good and bad way) to make a living and the government – although nominally communist – let them. It was the same in Saigon, only more so.

  14. Larry J

    Sorry about posting twice in a row, but this story seems to support my case about capitalism here in America verses Vietnam.

    USDA Closes Rabbit Show Loophole
    Not really; what the USDA has done is come down like a hammer on unlicensed rabbit sales:

    The bunny-selling business that John Dollarhite considered as harmless as a lemonade stand has led to an investigation by a federal agency and talk of a defense fund.

    The Nixa man is facing a $90,643 penalty, based on accusations he sold rabbits and guinea pigs without a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    A proposed settlement agreement from the federal agency, which oversees the sale of animals, said Dollarhite sold 619 animals from April 3, 2008 to Dec. 21, 2009, despite being told several times that he needed a license. Dollarhite’s business was called Dollarvalue Rabbitry. The business has been closed.

    Keep in mind this is before the Food Safety and Modernization Act created even more Federal interdiction on small and local businesses.

    I have this fantasy about a Republican, Tea Party Accountable Federal government in 2012 chopping the heck out of this micromanaging legislation (which ultimately mostly represents a legislated “big idea” with the actual micromanaging left to departments and bureaucracies whose existence and budgets depend upon ever-increasing micromanagement).

    I know that’s probably a fantasy, but futile hope is what gets me through the day.

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