Monday, July 20, 2009

Greatness: Much cheaper than avarice

When I was two months and one day old -- May 25, 1961 -- President Kennedy declared that the United States would shoot for the moon. Literally.

The goal was unimaginably complex for all its stated simplicity. Kennedy declared the country should "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

What American, in the midst of an existential struggle with the Soviet Union, could be against beating the Russkies to the moon? To achieving mankind's greatest feat?

A STORY TODAY by The Associated Press answers that question:

"I thought he was crazy," said Chris Kraft, when he heard Kennedy's speech about landing on the moon.

Kraft was head of Mission Control. He was the man responsible for guiding astronauts to orbit (which hadn't been done yet) and eventually to the moon. Kraft first heard about a mission to the moon when Kennedy made the speech.

"We saw that as Buck Rogers stuff, rather than reality that would be carried out in any time period that we were dealing with," Kraft recently told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Houston.

Less than three months later, Kraft was in the White House explaining to the president just how landing on the moon would be done. Kraft still didn't believe it would work.

"Too many unknowns," he said.

It was the Cold War and Russian Yuri Gagarin had just become the first man in space. Kennedy chose landing a man on the moon because experts told him it was the one space goal that was so distant and complicated at the time that the United States could catch up and pass the Soviet Union, Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen said.

The idea in a world where American capitalism was pitted against Soviet communism on a daily basis was "to prove to the world which system was best, which one was the future," Sorensen said.

"It's not just the fact that the president wanted it done," Sorensen recalled. "It was the fact that we had a specific goal and a specific timetable."

In another speech, Kennedy famously said America would go to the moon and try other tasks "not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

They weren't just skills with rockets and slide rules. Bringing together countless aerospace companies, engineers, scientists, technicians, politicians and several NASA centers around the nation was a management challenge even more impressive than building the right type of rockets, said Smithsonian Institution space scholar Roger Launius.

And it cost money. The United States spent $25.4 billion on the Apollo program, which translates to nearly $150 billion in current dollars — less than the U.S. spent in both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.
IN TODAY'S MONEY, it cost us $150 billion to figure out how to get to the moon and back, then actually get to the moon and back. Several times. That first moon landing, during the mission of Apollo 11, came 40 years ago today.

The greatest feat humanity has ever pulled off, to put it another way, cost 3.19 percent -- again, in today's dollars -- of what it has cost us so far to bail out this country's financial sector. The financial sector. it must be noted, that precipitated the worst economic crisis the world has endured since the Great Depression.

The Apollo program . . . $150,000,000,000.

Bailing out a bunch of Wall Street swells who, of late, have taken taxpayers' money and gone back to business as usual: $4,700,000,000,000.

I think that says about all there is to say about the kind of country we were 40 years ago -- and the kind of country we are now.

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