FT : A $35bn Ego Trip

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

IM and I were listening to a BBC program on Saturday morning (Mar 10) on the way to his ANZA soccer game.  This “scientist” was all excited about the discovery of the nth T-Rex skeleton and was trying to justify why it mattered and why any resources at all should be put to this kind of “science” when (in my opinion) mankind has way bigger problems to deal with.  I was therefore amazed to read an article in the FT the same day on the Star-Trek-obsessed, headline grabbing, layman “science” pursued by NASA.  I was delighted to read the words “criminal” and “outrageous waste of money” in the description of this BS (BullShit) science.  In reviewing “Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest” by Gerard DeGroot, the article talks about the total wastefulness of the US moon missions.  Excerpts –

Feeling depressed and forlorn after completing a history of the atomic bomb, Gerard DeGroot looked for an uplifting subject for his next book.  He chose to write about the heroes of his Californian boyhood – the astronauts who took America to the moon.  But DeGroot, professor of modern history at St Andrews University, soon became disenchanted with the Apollo programme.  His research uncovered “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants and even a few criminals”.  Above all, DeGroot “discovered scheming politicians who amassed enormous power by playing on the public fascination for space and fear of what the Russians might do there”.  In the event, Dark Side of the Moon turned out to be less about the 12 astronauts who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and more about the way “the moon mission was sold, as a race the Americans could not afford to lose – a struggle for survival”.  DeGroot came to share the view of many people today, that Apollo was a $35bn ego trip – an outrageous waste of money that should have been spent addressing problems on Earth.  For him, Neil Armstrong’s “small step” on to the moon achieved nothing for mankind beyond a brief burst of media-generated euphoria.  Others, including this reviewer, retain the romantic view that mankind’s destiny is eventually to colonise space.  For us, the great pity is that we didn’t maintain the momentum of the moon landings, by going on to establish a lunar base and send astronauts to Mars.  But our very different perspectives did not stop me enjoying DeGroot’s book.  He writes compellingly about the convergence of political, military and industrial forces that produced the “magnificent madness” of the space agency Nasa in the 1960s…..

Everything changed on October 4 1957, with the launch of Russia’s Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite.  “In one dramatic act, the Soviet Union had defined the terms of modernity,” DeGroot writes.  “They had surged ahead in space be cause of their success in marshalling technological change for the purposes of the state.”  An irresistible combination of the media, politicians and aerospace industry forced the US administration’s hand.  President Eisenhower personally disliked the idea of a space race with the Soviets, but political pressures left him with no option but to set up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – Nasa – with a multi-billion-dollar budget and a mandate to get Americans into space.  Public hysteria about Soviet space power increased after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth, in April 1961.  DeGroot says that, like Eisenhower, President Kennedy did all he could to “resist falling into the black hole of space”, but he too failed.  Kennedy had attacked the Republicans for complacency over the Soviet threat during his 1960 election campaign.  In the end he pledged to put an American on the moon before the decade was out – a promise that his successor, the pro-space Lyndon Johnson, invoked repeatedly to keep the Apollo programme on course.  The US military establishment and the White House soon realised, from spy satellites and intelligence sources, that the apparent Soviet lead was based more on bluff than technical superiority.  But they could not – or did not – tell the American people that.  At the time of Gagarin’s flight, most Americans concluded that they were far behind the Soviets; in fact, according to DeGroot, “in the areas that counted they were five years ahead.”  The illusion of a race to the moon that the Soviets had a chance of winning lasted until the successful Apollo 11 landing in July 1969…..

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/635f803c-cc77-11db-9339-000b5df10621.html

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