January 10, 2012
GOODNIGHT, MOONSHOT: At Reason, Matt Welch turns the lights out on a government-aggrandizing metaphor:
As authors William D. Eggers and John O’Leary argued in their 2009 Harvard Business Press book If We Can Put a Man on the Moon…Getting Big Things Done in Government, the lunar metaphor has experienced far too much mission creep. “The moon landings were without a doubt inspirational, but did they teach too much of a good lesson?” Eggers and O’Leary wrote. “Don’t we need some realism as well as optimism? Simply because you really want to reach a destination doesn’t mean you are going to get there. If President Kennedy had challenged us to send a man to Mars within the decade, we’d have lost that challenge. Just because government put a man on the moon doesn’t mean it can do something really hard.”
There are few things political executives love more than making promises to meet lofty goals by deadlines that will arrive long after they have exited the scene. Under laws passed and edicts signed half a decade ago, and regardless of cost or other feasibility issues, California in 2020 must acquire one-third of its energy from renewable sources. “By 2020,” President Obama said in a 2010 speech, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Politicians want to bask in the glow of Kennedyesque vision and determination, without getting hung up on the practical details.
But as Eggers and O’Leary point out, these transparent attempts to glom onto JFK’s glamour skip right over the 35th president’s real-world pragmatism. Consider this passage from Kennedy’s terse “Man on the Moon” speech: “This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread.…It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.”
“It is remarkable today,” Eggers and O’Leary comment, “to read the words of an American president, during a major address to Congress, talking about the bureaucratic challenges of a major endeavor. Interagency rivalries? High turnover?” One of the keys to making the moonshot was grounding it in reality by extending the original 1967 deadline to the end of the 1960s and doubling the original estimated budget when it became apparent that initial projections weren’t viable. Promises detached from reality, like missions detached from concrete accomplishments, are recipes for cynicism, waste, and failure.
Read the whole thing.™
RELATED: At PJ Media, Rand Simberg explores “The Lunar Yellow Peril.” Rand writes that both the US and Chinese “government space agencies should fear is [Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace] and SpaceX establishing a lunar base, and rendering them both irrelevant.”