Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moonstruck: Why Ayn Rand Would Have Mourned The Death Of Space Exploration

This coming week marks the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon.

Ayn Rand was on hand to celebrate that history-making achievement.

On July 16, l969, after having concluded a tour of Cape Kennedy’s Space Center the day before, Ms. Rand—an honored guest of NASA—witnessed the launching of Apollo 11.

Two months later, in a fifteen-page article (“Apollo 11,” The Objectivist, September 1969), Rand described in some detail to her readers (as well as to a rapt audience of her personal friends at my apartment in Manhattan) just how meaningful were those breathtaking seven minutes from countdown to liftoff.

I have always thought of her description of that launch—written and oral—as “beyond eloquence”:

“[T]his spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature . . . ” she wrote. “[N]or of chance, nor of luck . . . . [I]t was unmistakably human—with ‘human,’ for once, meaning grandeur . . . . For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel—not ‘How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!’—but ‘How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!’ ” (Emphasis Rand’s.)

Ayn Rand would have welcomed columnist Charles Krauthammer as a spokesman—a spiritual comrade-in-arms, one might say—on the matter of space exploration. In his recent July 17 column, “The Moon We Forgot,” Krauthammer bemoans what he describes as America’s retreat from space:

“After countless millennia of gazing and dreaming, we finally got off the ground at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Within 65 years, a nanosecond in human history, we’d landed on the moon. Then five more landings, 10 more moonwalkers, and, in the decades since, nothing . . . . America’s manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the U.S. will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We’ll be totally grounded.”

And Ayn Rand would have relished Krauthammer’s telling rhetorical question:

“So what, you say? Don’t we have problems here on Earth? Oh please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we’d waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we’d still be living in caves.”

Not surprisingly, Ayn Rand had anticipated such negative fallout would follow in the wake of the Apollo launch. She wrote derisively about the sort of people who can always be counted upon to lobby for a “better” use for our money—such as fighting a war on poverty. She knew better.

So does Charles Krauthammer. Raising the question of why a manned space program is important, he says emphatically, “It’s not for practicality. We didn’t go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it. Or, to put it less grandly, for its immense possibilities.”

When Rand expressed hope that the flight of Apollo 11 would be “ . . . the first achievement of a new age . . . not a glorious last,” she got her wish—for a time, that is: those five more landings and ten more moonwalkers. And while she knew all too well the pitfalls of this country’s “mixed economy,” she wrote—with, arguably, a touch of defiance—that “ . . . [I]f the United States is to commit suicide . . . let some of its life blood go to the support of achievement and the progress of science . . . .” (“Apollo 11,” The Objectivist, September 1969). Sadly, this was not to be.

Krauthammer aptly describes what has been stripped from our lives:

“We are now deep into that hyper-terrestrial phase, the age of iPod and Facebook, of social networking and eco-consciousness . . . . But look up from your Blackberry one night. That is the moon. On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints—untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history,” he notes, “the moon is not just a mystery and a muse but a nightly rebuke. We came, we saw, we retreated.”

And when he wonders aloud, “How could we?” Charles Krauthammer speaks not only for those of us who never lost our sense of adventure and magic, our sense of wonder.

He speaks for Ayn Rand.