Sunday, July 19, 2009

You Don't Hear That Anymore

(on the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, July, 1969)

I'm old enough to remember the Apollo program, and the way people used to say, "Darn it, if they can land a man on the moon, why can't they _________ (fill in the blank with whatever pressing issue you'd like to see solved) ?" It was a good question, because going to the moon is a big and difficult task, something worthy of a great nation. If we could do the one, why couldn't we do the others? And in fact, we did a lot of those things; the Sixties saw a lot of important reforms passed: Medicare, civil and voting rights legislation, the "Green Revolution" that fed a good chunk of the world's people, the beginnings of environmentalism, and more. We weren't always fully successful, but we attempted a lot of hard things and made a lot of progress during those years. Maybe it's unfair to say that the nation accomplished these other things because we were going to the moon, but the fact that we were going to the moon proved we could do Hard Things, and it left us with no excuses for not doing the other Hard Things if we thought they needed to be done. All we had to do was make the commitment. Years later, Jim Lovell emphasized this point about the Apollo program--it required only commitment, no miracles: "We just decided to go," said Lovell. And so we went.

People rarely say "if they can land a man on the moon, why can't they...?" these days. Because, of course, we can't land a man on the moon. We haven't landed a man on the moon since 1972, when Tricky Dick Nixon drove a stake through the heart of arch enemy John Kennedy's dream. NASA now says we might get back in another dozen or so years (though it only took them eight years the first time), but given the sorry record of the Space Shuttle program, it's hard to take that promise very seriously.

'Tis a pity. Right now, we also seem unable to do much about our dismal outsourced economy, rising unemployment, forty million without health care, and so forth. Maybe if we could still say, "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we create some good jobs here in the U.S.A.?" or "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we get this health-care thing fixed?" or "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put those Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the economy behind bars where they belong?" we might just find ourselves able to take some effective action.

Alas, we can't put a man on the moon anymore. And, judging by the daily news, we can't do the other things either.