The Apollo Mirage

The last time anyone walked on the moon was the day before I was born. I’m a bit bummed at missing the show.

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And what a show it was. The Soviet Union had taken a surprise early lead in the Space Race, putting Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, into orbit, and following up with Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight. “Today, for the first time, a man has flown in space,” announced an American newsreader, “and that man is a communist,” he concluded, voice as grave as America’s Cold War second-placing.

Against that dire background, President Kennedy ignited America’s imagination, upping the stakes with a race to the moon, and kicking off the Apollo project.

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Apollo, and the four hundred thousand people who worked on the project, burned through twenty-five billion dollars, back when a billion was a lot, and achieved Kennedy’s goal. “We came in peace, for all mankind,” America announced, happy to have spectacularly overpowered the Russians.

The United States was the richest, most powerful, most scientifically advanced entity that had ever existed.

It’s no wonder that in moments of malaise, when we feel that something big needs to be done, that people call for a new Apollo project. It might be a new Apollo project for clean energy, or infrastructure renewal, or, for those with more stunted lateral thinking, flying big rockets to somewhere.

A visionary politician, a starry-eyed speech with a decade long commitment, and a shit-ton of government money and we can do the impossible, unite the people, and revitalise the nation.

But any new Apollo project is a mirage.

Apollo was a child of the Cold War and conditions that no longer exist. The Cold War was a spending competition. Superpowers, by definition, were those countries that controlled the most firepower. The signifiers of superpower, aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, all carry unbelievable explosive force and are all ferociously expensive.

Ever since gunpowder arrived on the scene at the end of the fifteenth century, blasting through protective city walls, the key to political power has been the ability to purchase firepower. Gunpowder gave way to high explosives and then to nuclear weapons. States became empires. Empires became superpowers.

Global politics became a winner-takes-all game of who could buy the most explosives. At the end of World War II, we were down to the final round: the United States of America versus the Soviet Union, for the superpower championship of the world.

The key question of the Cold War was: who can buy the most bombs? Was it going to be the Soviet government with total control of the economy of the largest country in the world? Or was it going to be the American government, taxing the profits of a freer economy?

The point of the Apollo project had very little to do with science, and even less to do with “peace for all mankind.” It had everything do with upping the stakes in a massive spending competition. The point of the Apollo project was to be expensive for the sake of being expensive, in a way that demonstrated to the world America’s ability to spend extravagantly on firepower.

The point was made. It’s more effective to tax half the wealth of a relatively free economy than to take the entire output of a planned economy. Ultimately the Soviet Union couldn’t afford to keep up with the aircraft carriers and stealth bombers and Star Wars lasers and the empire collapsed, leaving the United States as the dominant military force on the planet.

There will never be a “new Apollo project” because the conditions that made the Apollo project no longer exist. The logic that underpinned Apollo was the logic that “he with the most firepower wins.” But at the same time that that logic was reaching it’s peak, with the moon shot and the nuclear arms race, the technology that supported that logic was changing.

The centuries-long rule of increasing firepower has exhausted itself. The two superpowers created weapons that are literally too dangerous to use. At the same time, both superpowers have been fought to a standstill in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere by enemies using cheap improvised weapons. Technology increasingly favours the defender.

Apollo was a success because it matched the political reality of its day. Any “new Apollo project” would achieve all of the expense and none of the benefits. Anyone trying to sell you a “new Apollo project” is probably looking to grab the power that comes with controlling that much spending and isn’t too bothered about achieving any of the supposed benefits.

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