Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, The Atlantic featured an article by Jim Hodges lamenting the decline of American exceptionalism in space:
[In the 1960s] Americans didn’t talk of their exceptionalism. They did exceptional things, and the world talked about it. In many places around the world, in science labs and classrooms, the NASA “meatball” was as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes.
People remember that President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade [of the 1960s] is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Forgotten is that just before that challenge, he said this as a preamble to it: “I believe we possess all of the resources and talents necessary [to lead the world into space]. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time as to insure their fulfillment.”
The government is certainly not doing that now, and we can’t count on it to do these things ever again.
However, I do not see this as occasion to despair. As well-intentioned as NASA has been, government almost always does things slower, costlier, and with less innovation than private enterprise. In fact, while government has been slashing NASA’s budget and scaling back its goals, private companies out in Mojave have been quietly innovating like crazy: