January 17, 2004 -- Our reactions to President George W. Bush’s plan to return to the Moon and eventually go on to Mars might start with a reference to Ayn Rand ’s essay on “Apollo 11.” In it she related her thoughts about the launch and landing of the first manned mission to the lunar surface. She described the experience of visiting the Kennedy Space Center to witness the take-off of the huge Saturn V rocket, of seeing it ride a trail of flames into the sky and hearing and feeling the roar of its engines.
The force of the launch was “a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence,” but in this case was “planned, unleashed and controlled by man.”
She described how after the launch the witnesses had an “abnormal, tense overconcentration on the commonplace necessities of the immediate moment.” Why? Because “one did not give a damn about anything, because one had no mind and no motivation left for any immediate action. How do you descend from a state of pure exaltation?” She wrote that the launch was in actual reality, rather than in a work of art, “the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness.”
She thought exactly appropriate Neil Armstrong’s words when he stepped onto the Moon, that it was “one giant leap for mankind.” Ayn Rand
wrote that “The most inspiring aspect of Apollo 11’s flight was that it made such abstractions as rationality, knowledge, science perceivable in direct, immediate experience. That it involved a landing on another celestial body was like a dramatist’s emphasis on the dimensions of reason’s power.”
Today most of those who want human beings to return to the Moon and go to Mars are motivated by the spirit of Apollo that was celebrated by Ayn Rand
. And think of the unbridled pride that individuals centuries in the future will experience when they actually terraform Mars, giving that planet an atmosphere and making it into another habitat for humanity. That will be the literal and ultimate example of human beings making the world in which they live.
The space station will cost $100 billion, support a crew of three, not be fully operational until 2010 -- if ever -- and facilitate very little real science.
But NASA, like all government agencies, was bound to become bureaucratic and ossified. After the glory days of Apollo it wasted too much taxpayer money and too much human skill and ingenuity on systems that did not open space for all mankind but simply drove costs up to astronomical levels. The space station, for example, was supposed to cost $8 billion, house a crew of twelve and be in operation in the early 1990s. Instead it will cost $100 billion, support a crew of three, not be fully operational until 2010 -- if ever -- and will facilitate very little real science.
It is a tragedy that the human spirit that Ayn Rand
celebrated in the Apollo missions has been squandered and made cynical by being invested in a government bureaucracy.
The problem is not that NASA workers want failure. Most are conscientious and welcome a new mission that returns them to science and exploration. But only the private sector can commercialize goods and services, be they cars, airline flights, personal computers or the Internet, making them accessible to everyone. What will be needed are policies that back NASA out of the civil space arena and let the private sector take over, bringing down costs and improving quality. The same pioneering and commercial spirit that made America can make us a space-faring civilization. But ultimately that spirit will need to be manifest in individuals working with one another in businesses, universities and private foundations rather than in bureaucrats toiling in government agencies.