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July 17, 2009


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As someone who spends much of his work week trying to get a large team to work together (and to understand why it's to their advantage to do so), I disagree that going to the moon made no "business sense." It stands as a model of sheer large-scale collaboraton. As I put it so poorly in my own sad little blog a couple months ago:

"Over the years, we’ve forgotten the true lesson of the Apollo missions. Nowadays, people would rather believe that the moon walks were faked. Or we miss the point altogether, second-guessing NASA’s share of our resources. But the true beauty of our space program lies not so much with its specifics, but with the idea that when given a clearly stated goal, and the passion to reach that goal, humans can whip up the will and the discipline to do just about anything.

"It starts with leadership: “We choose to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.” Simple, clear, concise. No room for misinterpretation. No points for wriggling out on a technicality. “Get it done — find a way.” If the public of the 1960s were awed by the technical mastery and gratified by our winning “the space race,” they were also inspired by the sight of a team making it happen, right before their very eyes."

Mr. Bostrom, it made no business sense because it was not a capitalist venture motivated by the prospect of private profit -- at least not directly -- but by idealistic and ideological goals.

America's space program was a combination of the romantic spirit of dreamers and adventurers, and partisan competition with the Soviets.

Military uses for rocketry were, initially, of primary importance for both governments, both of which tried to capture the secrets (and personnel) of the Germans at Peenemunde at the end of WW II.

The development of missile and rocketry technology for the purpose of delivering warheads was a major factor in the development of technology capable of delivering men to outer space.

Studies of the upper atmosphere (poorly understood then, but important for understanding radio propagation) lead to Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957.

The Soviets, who were competing for public opinion not only in the Third World but, at the time, in parts of Europe, were quick to see the propaganda value of their success, in a competition pitting the two systems against one another on technological, cultural, and ideological grounds. Indeed, any startling success, by either side, was quickly claimed as evidence of the superiority of that side's system.

Four months later, the U.S. tried to launch its own satellite, called Vanguard, which failed at launch.

The success of the Soviets and consequent failure of the Americans, was a great motive for the American space program, and more broadly, to higher education: within a year, in response to the "Sputnik Crisis", the Eisenhower administration passed legislation creating NASA; also the National Defense Education Act, which authorized more than a billion dollars (a fortune back then) to fund school construction, fellowships and loans, an expansion and coordination of vocational training, and much more, all aimed at ensuring American domination in the sciences, especially those of use to the defense industry.

So, the program, which as Mr. Talton has pointed out was scarcely an exercise in profit taking, nor even in constituent building by providing tangible benefits here on Earth, was motivated by military and ideological considerations; and of course, the underwriting of such projects, thus motivated, gave romantics a highly valued place, provided they brought with them the skills needed to turn their dreams into reality.

Surely, Mr. Bostrom, you see that "large-scale collaboration" is not exclusive to business models, since the Soviet space program saw considerable success, including the first artificial satellite, without any profit or business considerations whatsoever. The U.S. was forced to follow suit, or be left behind (actually or perceivedly) on several levels.

When I was a kid, I watched the lunar landing with great excitement. The entire family watched it, with immense tension and emotion.

As an adult, I worked at the Kennedy Space Center. President George Bush sent Sean O'Keefe to tell us that US engineers were dinosaurs and were no longer needed. On the grounds of KSC, in a trailer that had been a center of activity during the Apollo program, we were told that "engineering is for Indians" and that Americans needed to "accept their destiny" and work at Wal-Mart, cleaning toilets.

My NASA manager, who had worked there during the Apollo program, went out to a parking lot in front of the VAB and wept like a baby.

Imagine what would have happened if the NASA chief had said that in 1969.

O'Keefe told us that "George Bush believes in globalization" and that a natural consequence of globalization was that American engineers would lose their careers, and that Americans in general would have to accept poverty-level wages and low-skill jobs. He told us that global wages would have to settle to about the same level, and that Americans would lose ground until we were working for Chinese wages. Bush wanted this.

Imagine saying this during the euphoria over the lunar landing. What would Walter Cronkite have said? I wish that Walter Cronkite could have reported on that story in 1969!!!

It is important for people like you and me, who remember when the US wasn't a filthy, corrupt nation, to pass this knowledge down.

We also need to scream the truth -- Bush and his cronies are despicable. They deliberately ruined good people and an entire nation.

While I worked at KSC, several of us visited the Gemini program launch site. It was in ruins. The gantry had collapsed. Weeds were all over. There was only a tiny sign and you almost had to know where it was to even find it. One guy picked up a piece of the gantry and took it for a souvenir. I guess that old gantry is a good metaphor for this country. Something that used to be proud and signify achievement is now a rusting wreck. Achievers are vilified, hated and told to clean toilets.

Mr. Talton wrote:

"To keep the bubbles going and get away from integration, we have desecrated the countryside with sprawl that is already decaying or turning to slums."

There is an interesting question to be asked in the context of urban growth, decay, and income distribution -- factors which I consider to be inextricably intertwined in the context of economics.

In the same context, there exist, roughly, three socioeconomic classes (though with some overlap): (1) a relatively small number of capitalists who own/control the means of production; (2) a somewhat larger class of gatekeepers who, in managing the economic concerns of the owners, distribute the results while skimming off a fraction of the profits for themselves; (3) a majority class consisting of the so-called proletariate, who do most of the work which provides the profits of the owners.

On the one hand, there is the tendency for the individual income shares of the proletariate to be reduced to tiny proportions by their numbers: the tendency, if unopposed by other factors, for individual members to get poorer as their numbers increase, while the capitalists get richer through their means of control.

On the other hand, there is the expansion of the economy, the proverbial growth of the pie, such that, at least in theory, even though the number of slices may grow as the population grows, the area of the least of these slices need not shrink, due to the general growth of the pie: the idea is that a rising tide lifts all boats, or if not, at least keeps them afloat.

The question, which one might suppose to receive more discussion than it has, given its importance, is this: At what point does the growth of the pie fail to preserve the area of the smallest slices, without cutting into the area of the bigger slices? (One supposes that the slices of the proletariate are the first to shrink, and shrink the fastest, as a percentage of their initial size; and that the slices of the gatekeeper class are the next to stagnate or shrink, due to the economic dominance of the owner class.)

Quantitatively speaking, what is the balance point, between population growth and economic growth, at which this crisis occurs? And what factors combine to take the economy beyond the tipping point?

If, on the other hand, population growth stagnates, how does economic growth continue, sufficient to keep the economy on the safe side of the tipping point?

The economy must grow at a rate sufficient not merely to prevent the decay of what has already been built, but to provide additional economic growth, so that the slices of the proletariate, at minimum, don't shrink to the point of political inconvenience; and this while giving the owner class the income growth THEY want, while simultaneously preserving the positions of the gatekeeper class they employ to manage their affairs.

Otherwise, pervasive political dissatisfaction sets in, and there's big trouble, which at first may be dealt with using information control, but which threatens eventually to require the systematic use of repressive force, as individuals get fed up and begin to organize.

The only alternative is for the owner class to allow their own shares of the economic pie to be eroded for the benefit of the lesser classes, or to have such an outcome forced upon them by governments fearful of popular dissatisfaction, by means of progressive taxation and income redistribution.

"...the so-called proletariate..."

More properly, the so-called proletariat.

It figures that a fellow traveler like Mr. Talton would support a SOCIALIZED space program.

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