Two days before I was born President Kennedy issued a challenge before Congress to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of that decade. With six months to spare, an eight-year old me watched fuzzy images of astronauts stepping onto another world. Mission accomplished. In 2005 dollars, the Apollo program was estimated to have cost $170 billion. It required the unwavering bipartisan support of Congress across four elections, and the support of three Presidents. Add to that, the space program was commensurate with one of the most unpopular wars in US history, a time of great social unrest, and also the dawn of one of the most sweeping social entitlement programs.
Today’s question is, do you think we could possibly pull off a moon mission scale project today? That is, if we set forth a national project that was financially non-trivial and wouldn’t see results for eight or ten years, even if that project had more direct tangible benefit to our collective welfare than Apollo, could we sustain the required momentum? I fear the answer is, not a chance in hell.
It would seem that as a country we’ve lost our collective ability to plan more than a short time into the future. This is most evident in politics where everyone is playing for the best leverage in the next election with little regard for what’s best for the country. Our leaders look to polls and surveys to see what the popular position will be.
Industry isn’t much better. Long term investment is down. It’s all about how to maximize share price and next quarter’s balance sheet. Executives are mostly looking to make a quick name for themselves so they can hop to the next multi-million dollar job.
And consumers aren’t immune either. How many are putting off buying that new flat screen or living room set rather than saving for their kids’ college or their own retirement? How many buy houses they have no hope of paying off?
What led us to this state is less certain, but it would be hard to argue that we are here. Is our desire for immediate gratification driven by marketing messages? You can have it all, now. Why wait? Alternatively, perhaps it’s the inundation with media and information. There’s so very much to process in the here and now that’s it’s difficult to think about the future. Or perhaps it is the uncertainty of the future itself that fuels our short attention span. The world is changing so very fast that glimpsing the world our children will live in is very difficult. There are so many possible futures that it’s just easier to live in the now and let the future fall where it may.
I don’t personally think it seems so bleak. It’s not clear what has driven this change, but as long as we are this short sighted, we are unlikely to ever return to the hay-day for which we pine. We desperately need some sort of collective vision of what we can become. We will never be of one mind, but we can be of one goal. At the fuzzy level, we are. We all want this to be a great and prosperous country. But that’s not an actionable goal. It’s about as useful as your kid declaring that when he grows up he wants to be rich.
If history has a lesson for us it is that we respond to competition. We rallied together against the Nazis. The fear of communism drove enormous growth in science and technology, and in large part was likely the underlying driving force behind Apollo. We have enemies now in Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but they are not useful as competition. We need something larger, something that demands more of us. I’m thinking China. Economically, China is the largest looming threat on the planet. Not that they are evil or anything, or that we even need to hate them. But they may well be in a position a decade hence to just buy us for petty cash. We could do with a healthy desire to beat them at that game. To rebuild our own economy, infrastructure, and industrial base to out compete them in the global market. This is a challenge worthy of the people who put a man on the moon. And wouldn’t it be nice to be a part of something productive again?
Now, if only we had a Kennedy to inspire us…