Monday, July 19, 2004

It has been three and a half decades now since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first of a dozen men to walk on the moon. Today’s anniversary always brings joy and inspiration at that achievement but also disappointment that only 12 brave humans so far and so long ago have ventured to another world. Let us analyze these sentiments.

Ayn Rand believed each individual and society has a “sense of life,” an emotional manifestation of their deepest appraisal of mankind and the nature of the world in which they live. If that’s so, then America’s sense of life might best be described as a celebration of achievements.

We Americans are an optimistic people. We believe successful pursuit of our goals is to be expected. We believe if we just put our minds and our wills to a task, we can do almost anything. We believe in exploring new frontiers, whether geographic, scientific or commercial. We believe in innovation; if a new road, a new invention or a new business plan is needed but does not yet exist, we’ll create it. We believe the greatest joy comes from taking on the greatest challenges. After all, most of our ancestors took the risks of moving to a new country, often facing the physical dangers of crossing seas and mountains, the economic uncertainties of starting life in a new land and the social problems of learning a new language or customs — all so they could acquire the best life had to offer.

And what better manifestation and symbol of this sense of life than the moon landings. Through most of human history even to dream of such a voyage could mark one as a lunatic or heretic. Yet such trips were made real through the intelligence, discipline and courage of those marvelous men and women those many years ago.

Perhaps July 20 should be marked as a day to celebrate that interplanetary feat as well as all human achievements, a day dedicated to all the individuals who have accomplished great things, to the goal of achievement and to that sense of life most manifest in America.

Of course, today’s date is also a reminder it has been too long since humans have set foot on the lunar surface. In one way, this was to be expected. After all, a government agency like NASA with nearly unlimited taxpayer dollars might well land men on the moon, but it is only private entrepreneurs who can commercialize goods and services — that is, make them available to everyone, a point the recent President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy recognized. Government agencies, no matter how good the people who work for them might be, cannot do this.

After all, when their projects fail, rather than go out of business or give way to other competitors, they often are rewarded by Congress with more money. The cost of the space station was projected at $8 billion when conceived in the mid-1980s but a downsized version of the original will cost well more than $50 billion. Worse, government regulations and policies have hindered private sector space efforts.

Fortunately, the stillborn space revolution is receiving a second chance for life with the recent efforts of entrepreneurs like the innovator extraordinaire Burt Rutan. His company, Shared Composites, built the first privately funded craft that on June 21 carried a private citizen into space. Mr. Rutan wants to win the privately provided $10 million X Prize for being the first to launch a rocket capable of carrying three people into space twice in a two-week period. He also wants to create a profitable space tourism business.

Mr. Rutan is the designer of the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world non-stop without refueling. That craft now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if another of his vehicles, SpaceShipOne, or perhaps one of his X Prize competitors’ crafts, could greet the visitors to that great hall dedicated to achievement? That hall includes the first aircraft ever to fly on its own power, built by the Wright brothers; the Spirit of St. Louis, first to fly across the Atlantic, piloted by Charles Lindbergh, who sought and won the private $25,000 Orteig Prize; the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, piloted by Chuck Yeager; replicas of Robert Goddard’s first liquid fuel rocket, launched in 1926, and of the Viking, the first spacecraft to land on Mars, on July 20, 1976; and the actual craft that carried Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin to the moon.

So let us take time today both to reflect on the great achievements of the past and to recognize that as long as America holds on to its optimistic sense of life — and maintains free markets — our greatest achievements will be yet to come.

Edward Hudgins is the Washington director of the Objectivist Center.

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