Countdown to a Boondoggle
by Ryan McMaken
by Ryan McMaken
According to the Washington Times, President Bush plans to announce a new expedition to the moon. Initial reports state that this announcement may be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The White house can be expected to talk this up as some kind of historical parallel, but as with virtually everything coming out of the Bush administration these days, the reality will not quite match the rhetoric.
As the President and all federal drones like him would have us believe, government space flight is the continuation of the spirit of exploration and innovation that the Wright Brothers pioneered a century ago. Of course what the White House is sure to avoid mentioning is that the Wright Brothers' operation was a privately-funded entrepreneurial endeavor, while federal boondoggles like government-funded manned space flight are the exact opposite of this. While the Wright Brothers were privately financed, fueled by an entrepreneurial (and profit-seeking) spirit, and labored to fill a market demand which sure enough exploded after the success of their invention — space flight schemes are taxpayer-funded, heavy with bureaucratic incompetence, and always ultimately instituted to benefit the State and its public image at the expense of those who pay the bills.
One certainly need look no further than China to see a typical government space program in action. With last month's successful completion of a manned space flight, The Chinese government became the third government in history to use space travel to wage a propaganda campaign on its population. While the completion of the mission no doubt moved China closer to "great power" status that accompanies a space program and the ability to make nuclear weapons, the primary goal of the space program has always been to add legitimacy to the power of the Chinese state and to keep the Chinese Central Committee in power. China's leaders launched the Shenzou program in 1992 as an effort to build confidence in the government following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and while a decade of economic growth has decreased economic pressure against China's rulers, the political and social landscape remains a threat to the as yet unbroken power of the ruling Party.
The launch of the Shenzou (meaning divine vessel) was not televised live, lest something embarrassing happen, but following the safe return of the craft with its cargo, Lt. Col. Yang LiWei, both the Chinese space traveler (a Party member) and his government have been parading around the Chinese countryside playing up the great farce. Much of the nationalist fervor in the wake of the space flight has been aimed at Chinese urban dwellers who are suspicious of Chinese economic controls and the fact that virtually all actions of the Central Committee are routinely deemed "Top Secret" (sound familiar?) and too important for scrutiny by the public. For men like China's president Hu Jintao, cynicism about the government is never a good sign, so why not whip everyone into a patriotic frenzy? Plus, if a space program is good for anything, it's taking people's minds off problems here on earth.
If the atmosphere of this most recent propaganda campaign comes off as circus-like, it is only because history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. For China is merely repeating the kind of state-sponsored sentimentalism that Americans were forced to endure during the Cold war, and apparently are about to endure again.
The moon mission of 1969 comes to mind, and indeed, the propaganda-in-space strategy certainly worked for the Cold War generation, for while Americans were glued to their TV sets watching this alleged "giant leap for mankind" American teenagers were busy having various limbs blown off in a losing and pointless war in Indochina. We sure beat the Commies to the moon, but apparently, the Communists were too busy killing Americans to be bothered with televising a game of lunar golf.
As Michael Levin has noted, however, the moon project was merely a small part of an ongoing concerted government effort to use space flight as perennial jingoism:
But government got in at the ground floor of manned space exploration, for no earthly or heavenly good reason. The Mercury man-in-space project was undertaken only to beat the Russians (who won anyway). Devised by the Kennedy administration to obscure its bungled invasion of Cuba, the Apollo Moon program costing 25 billion 1969 dollars discovered that the Moon is made of old rocks. Then came the Space Shuttle, most memorable for blowing up a school teacher.
Add to this the pathetic end of the Columbia space shuttle and the ongoing PR surrounding the international space station and we have what amounts to one of the most successful (politically speaking) and wasteful pork projects of the 20th century. Much of this has been built on the lie that space travel somehow contributes to breakthroughs in technology for ordinary Americans. Amazingly, many Americans still believe this in spite of the fact that it is now virtually common knowledge that the space shuttle program is about 20 years behind the technology curve, and the technology in your Nintendo is more advanced.
So what the American government's favorite propaganda project has to do with the Wright Brothers remains to be seen. Certainly, a comparison between the space program and Wilbur and Orville would only be apt if the brothers had strapped a steam engine to a pair of wings and pushed the contraption off the side of a cliff, all on the taxpayer's dime. Fortunately, this was not the case, and thanks to the Wright Brothers, we can all travel to far away continents and back for less than a week's salary. Thanks to NASA, you can pick up pieces of Astronauts in your back yard. The benefits don't quite seem to compare.
Nevertheless, from the State's point of view, Bush's plans to launch a new mission to the moon could not come at a better time. We are bogged down in deadly conflict on the other side of the world with no end in sight, American liberties are trampled daily, and the welfare state is growing at an unprecedented pace. It's 1968 all over again. What better time to manufacture some new "heroes" like John Glenn who do nothing more than sit strapped to a metal pod while the scientists control everything from earth. Like the Chinese Central Committee, the White House can then parade these guys around the country and say, "Look what noble deeds we perform for you. Now pay up!"
Of course, the new mission to the moon may be even more sinister than the last one. Maybe God told the President to put nuclear missile silos on the moon. Who can say? What we do know, however is that such a space program will be more of the same propagandizing that it has always been in America, in Russia, and now in China. American taxpayers will be fleeced in order to pay White House buddies to send "marvels" of generation-old technology into the stratosphere, and we'll all applaud and shed a tear for the glories of the American state.
December 9, 2003
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.
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