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Repeating Myths of a Flawed NASA Past

Free enterprise had nothing to do with the U.S. getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

August 28, 2010 - 12:00 am
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I greatly respect J. Christian Adams for the sacrifices he’s made in attempting to force reform of a lawless Justice Department, and as I noted myself on the fortieth anniversary, I agree that Apollo 8 was a great accomplishment, and actually the moment we won the space race in the sixties (the landing itself, a few months later, was actually more of a denouement in that regard). But I am saddened to say that as a space historian and policy analyst, he makes a good federal prosecutor.

First, he writes:

The profound achievement of Apollo 8 also validated the brilliance of American economic ingenuity. The space race was more than zesty public relations. Apollo 8 marked the moment we passed the Soviets. It really did demonstrate the greatness of a nation dedicated to free enterprise, where the lunar module was built by Grumman Corporation, the command module by North American Aviation, and the massive Saturn rockets built by Boeing and Douglas. Sure, the Treasury was purchasing the products at great expense, but the supply side of the equation was essentially a free market one, where the best competing ideas won the contracts. Plus, we could afford it while our competitor could not.

A chief reason the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon was because it didn’t have a free market system. Instead, it had a stagnant command bureaucracy that could occasionally produce results like Sputnik, but as we learned in the 1980s, could never overcome inherent flaws that stifled ingenuity in the long run.

Well, no. Not really. Apollo established the paradigm that NASA would design, develop, and operate its own vehicles, with the labor of contractors (our version of the Soviet design bureaus) on cost-plus contracts. The competition wasn’t based so much on competing ideas as on competing rates and locations.

It’s interesting to read the Space Act, the authorizing charter for the agency. Nowhere in it does it require that NASA itself perform human spaceflight. Prior to the decision to go to the moon, NASA had simply been a new version of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, its predecessor that had provided much of the key technology that had created the modern aviation industry, updated for space technologies. After the moon decision, NASA became our own version of the Soviets’ state socialist enterprise, with repercussions down to today, because it was considered a Cold War effort for which little could be left to chance, and the driving philosophy was to “waste anything except time.”

This was an effective way to beat the Soviets to the moon (though we were still lucky to some degree that we won — it could easily have gone the other way), but it was a terrible way to open up space, as evidenced by the fact that half a century later, we still haven’t done it.

But this next statement is quite frustrating, half a year after the new NASA policy was introduced:

Unfortunately, further manned space exploration was effectively killed in the 2011 NASA budget. This is a grave mistake. Not only does space provide unique solutions for problems here on Earth, such as growing perfect tissue cells for transplant research or other medical applications, it also has strategic importance.

… I recognize that NASA has many of the problems endemic to any government bureaucracy. But the answer is to reform NASA while pressing forward into space instead of killing off manned exploration.

Mr. Adams is assuming the proposition to be proved (i.e., “begging the question,” a phrase often misused by those who simply mean raising the question).

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