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In the wake of Sputnik I’s success on October 4, 1957, in which the USSR could stake claim to having built the first artificial earth satellite, a cosmic shift in perception took hold. Whatever advantages US society might have as measured by individual freedom, it came up short when stacked against Soviet science and technology.

Soviet space superiority was on display 32 days later when Sputnik 2 launched with Laika, a dog found roaming the Moscow streets who died a few days after takeoff. Telemetry data recorded during her orbital flight showed a cabin temperature reaching a high of 109 °F. She suffered long before dying, giving Americans another reason to hate the commies.

Not only did Sputnik II carry the dog, which suggested that the Soviets were thinking about putting human beings into space, the final stage of the rocket had remained attached to the satellite—which meant, incredibly and ominously, that the Soviet rocket had managed to put a six-ton weight into earth orbit. The United States, on the other hand, was working on a grapefruit-sized satellite weighing three and a half pounds. — Apollo, Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox, 2004 [my emphasis]

The final humiliation came the following month when Vanguard TV3 blew up on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. According to Murray and Cox, a Soviet delegate to the UN needled the US as to whether it would be interested in receiving aid earmarked for “undeveloped countries.”

A shocked American public demanded answers. There were no answers, only public schooling, bridge clubs, GM, pizza, Annette and Elvis. The government started subsidizing math and science majors, and formed two bureaucracies, ARPA (later DARPA) and NASA. When the US launched its 30-lb. grapefruit called Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, the all-out space race between the two countries shifted into high gear.

The winner, as we’ve read and heard, was the US when three astronauts made a round-trip voyage to the moon in 1969. It was a triumph of a can-do ethic, requiring the sweat and intelligence of some 400,000 individuals during peak years to put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon’s surface. As one writer recently put it, “Although the plucky astronaut crew made the feat look easy, NASA knew better: This was easily the most perilous voyage in history.”

Even that is an understatement. Among the challenges of sending men to the moon is the deadly Van Allen radiation belt astronauts would pass through for an hour each way. After discovering the belt in 1958, Dr. James Van Allen stated in Scientific American that “somehow the human body will have to be shielded from this radiation, even on a rapid transit through the region.” But apparently NASA found a way around it. NASA claims the trajectory and 17,000 mph speed of their spacecraft spared the astronauts from significant exposure. On Apollo 11, NASA’s greatest fear was whether the lunar module could launch-to-rendezvous with the orbiting command module, which would then return them to earth. It was considered so forbidding President Nixon had a disaster speech ready in case it failed. 

Did capitalism defeat communism?

It would be nice to say the country’s unflagging entrepreneurial spirit was aroused and won out over the Soviets, but the facts are otherwise. In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s 1961 speech that ignited the Apollo program, The Economist reminded the world of a stark reality:

He [Kennedy] set out to make America's achievements in space an emblem of national greatness, and the project succeeded. Yet it did not escape the notice of critics even at the time that this entailed an irony. The Apollo programme, which was summoned into being in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market system, succeeded by mobilising vast public resources within a centralised bureaucracy under government direction. In other words, it mimicked aspects of the very command economy it was designed to repudiate.

Kennedy’s advisers had assured him beforehand that with adequate funding reaching the moon could be done, that there were no major technological hurdles to overcome. He thought the public needed Apollo to restore American pride, though personally he didn’t care that much about space. By 1963 he was convinced the US was no longer in the shadows of the Soviets technologically, but he was concerned about the exponentially-expanding Apollo budget — as were his critics.

He was also trying to defuse tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries and had made progress in that regard with the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis and the test ban treaty. He sent feelers to Moscow to see if there was interest in a joint moon project and given the encouraging response made a proposal in the UN on September 20, 1963 calling for cooperation. Shortly before his death JFK told NASA chief Jim Webb to “find ways of doing this.” Talk of cooperation ended after Dallas, and as space policy author John Logsdon told an interviewer, “Apollo became a memorial to a fallen president.”

Adding yearly spending for the Apollo program, 1959-1973, yields a total of $20.4 billion or $109 billion in 2010 dollars. Was it worth it? According to Slate, quoting Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “The Apollo program only had a majority public support—over 51 percent—for the few months around the 1969 moon landing. That’s it. Otherwise, it was less than 50 percent.” In the 1960s a billion dollars was a lot of money. Spending billions to go to the moon was seen as an expensive joyride. Again quoting Conway: “The basic facts are that every year after 1964 Congress cut the NASA budget. Why did they do that? Well, the reality simply was that the public support wasn’t there.”

There was also a warfare - welfare state under development during this period, competing for NASA’s claim to the tax haul. And without a perceived market entrepreneurs had no interest in a project of Apollo’s magnitude. 

Yet many people who view Apollo as a waste concede that it was an enormous engineering achievement. The problem was it stopped: Apollo moon missions were moments without momentum. As one viewer lamented, “Sadly, it turns out that what everybody thought would be a new epoch after the moon walk didn't last much longer than the moon walk itself.” 

“Step by step, ferociously” 

Today, technology has caught up with dreams, and certain entrepreneurs believe space projects could pay off.

Making the space headlines now are tech billionaires, especially Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and their respective companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX. Many articles have been written about the technical merits of their achievements but missing from most is the distinction between a political entrepreneur (Musk) and a market entrepreneur (Bezos). Hardly surprising, since the distinction is lost on most commentators. Musk, like the 19th-century “Robber Barons,” has a chummy relationship with US government officials, especially John McCain.

"Every time McCain makes a move in the space industry,writes Steve Sherman at Townhall, “you can expect to see SpaceX as the beneficiary. Why would that be? Could it be the $10,000 that the SpaceX PAC donated to Senator John McCain this cycle or the $1,780,000 SpaceX spent on lobbying in 2015 of which a large percentage was spent on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 that Sen. McCain co-sponsored and was signed into law.”

Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, recently disclosed he is selling $1 billion a year in Amazon stock to finance his space venture firm. Bezos wants to move heavy-industry manufacturing to space and colonize the solar system, but he insists on doing it “step by step, ferociously.”

Musk wants to colonize Mars and needs money to do it. “Ultimately, this is going to be a huge public-private partnership,” he said. Ultimately, he’s going to fleece the public once again in an attempt to make his project work. True to form, Mr. Musk.

What was once a government vs. government space race is now a crony capitalist vs. a market capitalist space race. Let’s make the ethical distinction loud and clear: For the first time since space exploration began one of the competitors doesn’t have his hand in your pocket.

A former computer programmer who wrote both mainframe and PC applications, Smith now spends his time between raising his grandson and writing.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: Wikimedia