The three moonshots of Barack Obama
I was one of those kids who grew up in the ’60s mesmerized by the space program. I actually, geekily, wrote NASA regularly requesting pictures of astronauts and sending in my own ideas for spacecraft, mission patches and the like. They would reply with thick envelopes full of press releases and eight by tens of ...
I was one of those kids who grew up in the ’60s mesmerized by the space program. I actually, geekily, wrote NASA regularly requesting pictures of astronauts and sending in my own ideas for spacecraft, mission patches and the like. They would reply with thick envelopes full of press releases and eight by tens of my astronaut heroes, glossy proof that in our times anything was possible.
I watched the moon landing from summer camp where my store of newspaper clippings on space shots was the focus of considerable commentary (and not in a good way…leading to plenty of taunting, hazing, and one night alone on a tiny mosquito infested island in the middle of our lake). We had a small black and white television in the lodge up there in Readfield, Maine and we watched the ghostly images of Neil Armstrong leaping off the lunar lander (“yes…yes…the Lunar Excursion Module…the L.E.M….” cries out the little geek with black-framed glasses sitting as close as possible to the screen fully aware that his outburst will lead to the short-sheeting of his bed). It was not just moving for me, it was life defining. It was evidence that ours was an era apart and it was a harbinger of more amazing things to come. We didn’t need Harry Potter. We had real magic happening before our eyes.
Sadly, in terms of the space program, that day 40 years ago this week was a high water mark emotionally if not technologically and in the years since we seem to have lost our sense of adventure and our connection to the ancient human impulse to constantly explore as far as possible beyond the limits of our knowledge. Our decision not to build as we might have on the achievements of the Apollo program is to me a sign we suffered a failure of national imagination.
During the presidential campaign last year, there was a conscious effort to draw analogies between John Kennedy, the symbolic father of the space program, and Barack Obama. There was a clear sense that association with the Kennedys would offer Obama a “right stuff” infusion. Personally, I found the whole business pretty distasteful, in part because I feel that Kennedy is almost certainly the most over-rated American political leader of the 20th Century and that there is an unsavory dimension to his history and that of his family that neither reflects well on them, nor on those who choose to overlook it. I also don’t much buy into that greatness by association formula that is so popular within spin community.
That said, here we are six months into the Obama administration and there are strong indications that the president did not take the analogies lightly, that he is in a real way aspiring to the Kennedy example. Indeed, despite the inevitable grappling with both the learning curve and the curve balls thrown by circumstance, I think it is possible to argue that Barack Obama more than any recent president has sought to set goals that if achieved would have massive, global and ennobling consequences.
In fact, in a few key areas at least the President of the United States has broken free of the gravitational pull of Washington incrementalism and he already has us embarked on not one but perhaps as many as three different moonshots, national initiatives of importance comparable to those we cheered when back when British Open runner-up Tom Watson was still young.
One of these is closely related to the dark underside of the space program, the nuclear arms race that had us all as kids cowering in our school hallways beneath the winter coats that were supposed to protect us from thermonuclear fireballs. It is Obama’s pledge, made in Prague, to seek the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons programs that resonates most like Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon in ten years. It seems impossible. It is redolent with hope. It would mark a breakthrough in the history of human civilization. In fact, it would mark multiple breakthroughs including both advancing the cause of peace and security worldwide and moving us toward more effective next generation global governance mechanisms. In this latter case, the breakthrough would come because there is no way to achieve Obama’s goal without a successor to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that guarantees the international community the right to inspect at will and the right to use all means including force to ensure compliance.
Another existential threat, climate change, is the target of another of Obama’s moonshots. He has powerfully articulated his belief that global warming and continued reliance on fossil fuels exposes the United States and the world to manifold risks. Finally, the United States is seeking to play a leadership role in crafting an international agreement to reduce green house gas emissions. At the same time, the U.S. is investing unprecedented sums in cultivating alternative energy forms and finding ways to capture and harmlessly store carbon. Success on this front could well be the defining achievement of the current generation of world leaders. (Interesting what a vitally important role the Department of Energy, long the black hole of the U.S. bureaucracy, plays in two of these signature Obama initiatives.)
A third moonshot is the president’s commitment to fix America’s broken health care system. While this may seem prosaic and hardly as elevating as launching men into space or ending the threat of a nuclear or climatic end to human life on earth, nothing less than the role of the United States as a leading nation depends on our ability to get our arms around the massive underfunded liability we face in retirement health care. At the same time, when the last major economy on earth finally agrees with all the other developed nations that healthcare is a fundamental human right, it will represent a watershed in our view of the nature and role of governments. And the costs associated with this particular challenge will almost certainly exceed those associated with the space program…by at least 250 times. (The roughly 180 billion 2009 dollars it cost to put a man on the moon is roughly the same as was allocated for the AIG bailout. So by that measure, already the Obama Administration has plenty more moonshots to its credit.)
Each of these objectives is worthy and each is a massive undertaking. Any administration that accomplished one would secure its place in history. Throw in a few other largish objectives — like achieving peace in the greater Middle East — and there’s no denying that America’s long drought of vision and ambitions on a grand scale is over. We’re no longer in the school uniforms or “don’t ask, don’t tell” territory any more, Toto. (Of course, it’s worth remembering that we put a man on the moon at the same time as we fought the war in Vietnam, launched the “Great Society”, implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964…all effectively under the remarkable and under-appreciated leadership of Lyndon Johnson.)
But of course, the reason that today we are seeing replay after replay of Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon in a decade is because we actually achieved the goal. As of now, all three of Obama’s moonshots seem even more unlikely to be achieved than did putting a human on a satellite of earth 240,000 miles away. But for the moment, it’s worth celebrating the fact that we are thinking big again, that we are still game for attempting the worthy but seemingly impossible which is why I am declaring today a cynicism free national holiday in honor of the imagination, chutzpah, and hard work that made the achievement of July 21, 1969 possible. I even feel my imagination stirring a bit. But rest assured, I am not planning on building a model spent nuclear fuel disposal facility in my bedroom or sending fan mail to climate envoy Todd Stern. The last thing I need is for my wife to start short-sheeting our bed.
Matt Stroshane/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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