Ed Driscoll

The Sputnik Fallacy

At the Corner, Rich Lowry explores President Obama’s flawed Sputnik analogy, and notes, “In the wake of the moon landing, liberalism failed to understand that society is not an enormous engineering project:”

As Walter McDougall documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, one of the heroes of the Apollo project, NASA administrator James Webb, fed the misunderstanding. He thought the space program constituted a breakthrough in the management of large systems that could be widely replicated.

McDougall writes that “the James Webbs had, by their talent and energy, made command innovation look easy — and ‘American.’” In a letter to LBJ, Webb told the president, “The space program lies in your first area of building the Great Society.” And build it he did. “A new political symbolism had arisen,” McDougall notes, “to discredit the old verities about limited government, local initiative, balanced budgets, and individualism.”

LBJ himself remarked on the catalyzing effect of the space program. According to LBJ, people said, “‘Well, if you do that for space and send a man to the moon, why can’t we do something for grandma with Medicare?’ And so we passed the Medicare act, and we passed 40 other measures.”

One of Lowry’s readers notes that the deadline that JFK set for Apollo was “overcome by the power of infinite funding alone.” In reality, “A closer reading of the history demonstrates this position as fallacious.” Men with big steely cojones were willing to put them on the line to see Kennedy’s vision through, at considerable risk to their reputations. Witness:

  1. George Mueller’s decision to adapt an ‘all-up’ testing regimen for the Saturn V booster
  2. George Low’s decision to fly Apollo 8 in 1968

When Mueller was appointed Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Space Flight he quickly realized that the conventional approach to testing new booster technology would result in years of delays and NASA would be unable to meet the objective of a manned landing by 1969. To the chagrin of many at NASA, he instituted the policy of testing the entire booster system as a whole rather than testing each individual component separately and conjoining them over time. This approach was anathema to the engineering community and broke with all tradition. I cannot speak to the psychology of his decision-making process but it is my belief that it derived from his desire to assist in meeting specified national goals. It was selfless to the extent that had the approach been a failure he would have been vilified in his community and his future prospects imperiled.

Needless to say, the modern NASA (when it isn’t cooking the books) has very different priorities these days, as the era of the Right Stuff has long been superseded by the PC world of not accomplishing very much — but not hurting anyone’s feelings in the process. Or to paraphrase John Derbyshire, better dead than rude — or in the case of NASA, better brain-dead than rude.