Saturday, January 27, 2007

Apollo I anniversary - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee

Today is the 40th anniversary of the fire that destroyed Apollo I on the launchpad, killing all three crewmembers - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. H/T Liberal Lie, Conservative Truth.

NASA's webpage includes detailed biographies of Grissom, White and Chaffee.

This anniversary reminds me of the comment that Joe Sobran made following the destruction of the Columbia in 2003:
I couldn't get into the spirit of mourning for the
seven astronauts on the doomed space shuttle, and I
frankly doubt that most people could. Too bad, of course,
but so are plane crashes and car wrecks and heart
attacks, and you can't feel sorry for every stranger who
comes to a sad end.

Were we supposed to mourn because the space program
is a U.S. Government project? That's the very last reason
I'd feel sympathy for the dead. My philosophical friend
Butler Shaffer has written some interesting thoughts
about how the space program illustrates the insights of
chaos theory -- an extension of the law of unintended
consequences, as I understand it.

Government projects notoriously have a way of going
wrong. So do most human enterprises, but there's a
difference. In private enterprises, people gamble their
own money and try to limit their own risks prudently.
Government -- well, President Bush has just proffered a
budget of $2.23 *trillion* for the next fiscal year. Over
two centuries, U.S. Government spending has gone from the
low millions to the low *trillions.* Apparently billions
were just an intermediate phase. For that matter, so may
trillions. Let us begin to brace ourselves for

This is a sign of not only limitless government, but
fantastic mismanagement. Bush's budget is expected to
mean a $300 billion deficit. I can remember when people
were alarmed at annual budgets a third that size. (Albeit
with deficits of a few billion -- cute little things, as
they now seem.) The national debt? I've heard figures
like five and seven trillion, but it may be much higher.

Is it too much to ask that the government spend less
than it takes in? Imagine a private corporation that lost
money and fell deeper into debt nearly every year. The
shareholders would be diving overboard, and the company
would soon be out of business. From this angle, the U.S.
Government appears as a stupendous corporation managed by
people who, in private life, would be bankrupts. As
"public servants," they bear no personal responsibility
for the losses they incur or the money they waste. On the
contrary, they are rewarded.

Of course this corporation has a unique resource:
the captive shareholder, also known as the taxpayer. He
can't really fire the managers and he can't pull his
money out. He is forced to keep investing, no matter how
heavy his losses. The managers face no penalty for the
most palpable incompetence. Unlike private businessmen,
they can't be sued or fined or prosecuted for fraud. They
have no incentive for restraint or prudence. They respond
only to the stockholders who demand more spending -- who
are generally the ones who have the least invested.

Think of that: the government can force us to pay as
much as it likes, yet it still can't stay in the black!
The personal income tax we've been paying for nearly a
century has left it no excuse. If it could balance the
books before that bonanza of tyranny, why not now? Even
more bafflingly, why do the taxpayers remain loyal and
submissive to this government? Why do they continue to
trust it? This confidence passeth all understanding.

After the crash, I listened to a radio debate over
whether the space program is worth the cost. The obvious
answer, given by none of the debaters, is tautological:
it's worth it to those who feel it's worth it. They
should be able to invest their own money in it -- and
nobody else should be forced to. Space exploration
thrills some people and leaves others cold. Its benefits
are felt by some and not by others. Let everyone decide
for himself by privatizing it. What has such an
enterprise, whatever its merits, to do with law and
government? Why should anyone, qua citizen, be compelled
to subsidize the passions, underwrite the profits, assume
the losses, and pay for the mistakes of others? Without a
market to measure demand in the form of prices, it's idle
to discuss whether any enterprise is "worth it."

As you can tell by now, I have never taken much
interest in space exploration. I didn't even bother
watching the first moon landing in 1969; I figured that
if it could be done, it would be done, eventually. I'm
even willing to be generous and call it the greatest
achievement of socialism. It accelerated the date of the
inevitable, perhaps by many years. It was, in its way, a
great feat.

Still, I wanted no part of it. I couldn't have told
you why at the time. I just felt unconnected to it. As an
American, I took no pride in it, even though (in terms of
the Cold War) it meant "we" had bested the Russians. I
couldn't feel real enthusiasm for statist "achievements."
It was indeed "one small step for man," but a giant leap
for collectivism.

Sobran has a point, but he fails to remember that the collectivists in Russia never achieved anywhere near the space success that the capitalist U.S. achieved. The Soviets never put a man on the moon. The Soviets' manned flights were always shrouded in mystery. Yes, the U.S. was injecting collectivism into the space program by funding it with government money. But only a predominantly capitalist economy could afford a successful program and provide individuals with sufficient pioneering spirit to make it work.

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