Whenever we attempt to evaluate things, there is price and then there is cost. The price of an item or adventure is simply the dollar amount. The cost is something greater and deeper than money alone. Students today go into hock up to their eyeballs to obtain a college degree. They are, in effect, wagering their futures and paying the price, while the cost is paid by society as a whole if they don't succeed.
Schoolteachers, engineers, doctors, researchers and scientists don't just fall from the sky. These people are investing in their own futures, unsure of their own success or potential yet they are willing to accept the challenge. Each generation makes that commitment and knowledge is multiplied.
In 1903 two brothers from Ohio flew the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft and sixty-six years later men landed on the moon. That is an impressive time line, from traveling 120 feet down a beach to 238,837 miles to the lunar surface. Think of all the jobs and employment that opened up in those sixty-six years, from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and millions of others. It was the fearless investment in the future that made it all possible.
During the Great Depression the WPA built runways and landing fields. They set up navigational aids and made the airline industry possible. The airline industry fueled the need for larger and more powerful aircraft, which in turn created a need for more mechanics and pilots and air traffic controllers. From DC-3s to 747s in thirty-five years, from hundreds employed to tens of thousands employed. There was no guarantee the government money spent would return dividends, only the hopes that it would help in the future. It wasn't money procured by special interest pressure groups. The railroads felt safe and secure, fly off in a rickety airplane versus a nice comfortable Pullman sleeping car? Don't make me laugh!
President Kennedy made a speech in 1961 after only one American had flown in a sub-orbital space flight. The program he was proposing was incredibly expensive, $24 billion over ten years to put a man on the moon.
"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too... Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, 'Because it is there.' Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked." John Kennedy
Certainly it was an appendage of the Cold War but it was also an appendage of the technology war and the science war. At its zenith the lunar program employed four hundred thousand Americans with twenty thousand contracts and research grants to businesses and universities. In the back room behind the cameras NASA had their experts and trouble shooters, the best and the brightest and most of them still in their twenties. Mathematicians, flight systems specialists, life scientists, computer experts, all making the impossible look easy.
It all culminated in July of 1969 with the first landing on the moon. Even Jules Verne hadn't predicted that a world audience would watch it on television live. For that one day for 24 hours the people back on planet Earth sat back and said, "Wow, men on the moon." Neil and Buzz figured their landing data on a computer that weighed less than twenty pounds. They filmed their actions inside the spacecraft on a miniature video camera. Then they downloaded it to a microwave signal and sent it back to NASA from a spacecraft moving 15,000 miles per hour.
On the surface they used a miniature television camera and they attached things inside the capsule with a new device called Velcro. Their electricity on board was generated by a fuel cell and later missions even carried along an electric car. The car was equipped with its own microwave relay that beamed the signals to the lunar module and back to Earth making the lunar module a cell phone tower.
That $24 billion investment was the crucible where our modern world was created. There were no guarantees of product spin offs; no one at the time had even the slightest inkling of the computer revolution that was about to change everything. It was a blind investment into the future and a blind investment in a goal that many thought was impossible to achieve in the ten-year time line.
The payback was incalculable. The computer industry, the communications industry, the technology is everywhere and touches every life and has created millions of jobs for Americans. It created whole new industries out of thin air, so when people try to tell me that big government programs and government investment don't work, I roll my eyes and laugh. Remember that next time you're standing in the airport talking on your cell phone or loading your video camera or closing the Velcro strips on your lap top computer bag. The price to create these things was $24 billion but the cost was almost free.
We gained all of this; we went to the moon and we have learned a hundred times more about the universe in the last fifty years than in the previous one thousand years. We have a telescope in space placed there by a big government program that can see almost to the edge of the universe and plans are on the drawing board for a new telescope ten to twenty times more powerful if we have the courage and wisdom to build it and launch it.
We achieved the highest technological pinnacle of human achievement and friend and foe alike marveled at our abilities. We did all of this without a gun or a bomb, without fighters or bombers, without threats or soldiers, without invading anyone's territory or deploying troops.
We did these things like a farmer does, by planting seeds and trusting for a bountiful future. We have many problems today just as we had many problems in 1961. Many of our problems today are related to our energy needs. Our energy needs spill over into our environmental concerns; toxic spills and coal fires spill over into global warming. Imagine a one trillion-dollar investment over ten years for safe, clean, renewable energy. Imagine the new products undreamed of today. Imagine the jobs created and imagine the falling deficit when we no longer need to buy foreign oil.
Imagine the smaller defense budget when we no longer need to defend the obsolete oil fields around the globe. Imagine a thousand wind turbines where the deep-water oil drilling rigs stand today in the Gulf. Imagine cargo ships loaded with these products as exports bound for the rest of the world. Imagine a goal of energy self-sufficiency in ten years. Then imagine where we will be in the world if we don't do these things.
The cost of the Vietnam War: $173 billion with the loss of 58,000 American lives and 350,000 casualties.