The first landing on the moon, 20 years ago, was supposed to point a path to the future. Today we are living in that future, and that feat appears as part of the heroism of the past.
Despite President Bush's announced support for establishing a base on the moon and sending a manned mission to Mars, such ideas are likely to remain in the realm of plans and programs rather than of policies and funded projects. There are excellent reasons why. The Apollo moon-landing program, for all its self-conscious futurism, stands as a monument to vanished attitudes of its time. These attitudes dealt with government and with technology, and stand in sharp contrast to what we expect today.
Apollo had its start in the early 1960s. At the time, there was sweeping enthusiasm for the ideal of government that brought Apollo into being. The ideal was that our government should feature a charismatic leader as President, who would push forward in a widespread program of governmental activism. John F. Kennedy gave America the very embodiment of this ideal, and the Apollo years--the decade that followed his death--can readily be viewed as a search for someone to replace him. Kennedy not only initiated Apollo but made it a centerpiece of his Administration.
Today, however, our expectations have changed. We are far less likely to give our hearts to vibrant and exciting new leaders, or to put our hopes in grand governmental programs with names like "New Frontier" or "Great Society." With Republicans having a virtual hammerlock on the White House, it is doubtful that John Kennedy could even be elected today. The contrast between George Bush and Kennedy illustrates something important: Americans no longer expect their Presidents to give them everything, including the moon.
A second major attitude that drove Apollo, and which we no longer hold, was that government action could usher in the future. Government agencies would seize the opportunities of the time, lavish massive funding on them, and bring them into bloom. In particular, government could identify the most promising and significant new technologies, such as space flight, and turn dreams into realities.
Today, however, we put our hope not in government but in small companies and entrepreneurs. We expect that the technologies of the future will emerge, not through programs in Washington, but from the work of inventors in centers such as Silicon Valley. There is little interest today in "industrial policy," which was a Wash-ington catchword only a decade ago: Thenotion that government should select technology's winners and losers. This idea was at the core of Apollo.
Apollo was pursued amid a widespread concern over national goals. In the '60s, opinion-makers often asserted that the nation should spend its effort and treasure on the pursuit of specific achievements: going to the moon, abolishing poverty, winning the war in Vietnam. Today we appreciate that the world is too complex to be neatly encapsulated in such government plans, and few such proposals come forth.
Apollo also went forward amid a vague but widely held expectation that space flight would be the key to the future. Today, electronics holds the hope that formerly attached to astronautics--and the difference between a desktop computer and Cape Canaveral illustrates the difference between these technologies. No entrepreneur could build a rocket for the Cape, but no federal program could put a computer on the desktop.
Apollo also engendered the expectation that there would be major follow-up efforts of similar scope. The closest comparable activity was Synthetic Fuels Corp. of Jimmy Carter's Administration. This was a lavishly funded effort to seize the future by pursuing a new technical goal: that of producing gasoline and other synthetic fuels from coal. This project was soon abandoned under Reagan, and few lamented its demise. Though far less dramatic than Apollo, it drew from the same mind-set and exemplified the same attitudes.
Why, then, will we not soon return to the moon or go to Mars? We will not do these things for the same reasons we will not fight an overseas war or launch far-reach-ing new efforts aimed at social change. Our expectations are different, more modest--and more realistic.