MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Since Apollo 11, opposition to the space program has come almost entirely from critics on the left who argue that it consumes resources badly needed on Earth. Few of them made that objection to Sputnik. Perhaps they object not to the space race but to America winning it, just as many of them oppose not our intervention in Vietnam but our choice of sides.

Most conservatives seem now to have accepted, even embraced, the space program and with it the idea that the exploration of space can only be achieved by government. That idea is false. If we had not been in such a hurry, we not only could have landed a man on the moon, we could have done it at a profit.

How? Perhaps as a television spectacular. The moon landing alone had an audience of 400 million. If pay TV were legal, that huge audience could have been charged several billion dollars for the series of shows leading up to, including, and following the landing. If the average viewer watched, altogether, twenty hours of Apollo programs, that would be about twenty-five cents an hour for the greatest show off earth.

After the landing everyone from Columbia Gas to Stouffers Foods tried to claim the credit. They could have been charged for the privilege. America’s annual expenditure on advertising is about $20 billion. What company would not give 10 percent of its advertising budget to be part of the biggest news story since the crucifixion?

The moon rocks, after being studied, could have been auctioned off. So could stamps cancelled on the moon. The astronauts could have staked out a modest territorial claim to everything within a hundred miles of the landing site and sold it. What would you pay for legal title to an acre of the moon? How about billboards on the moon—with a small freight and installation charge?

Is this an evil, commercialized vision that only a filthy capitalist utterly debased by greed could approve? The alternative was to use the state’s taxing power to take an average of $500 from every family in the country, willing or unwilling—at the point of a metaphorical gun. Is that better than selling the commercial values of the program to willing customers? Greedy capitalists get money by trade. Good liberals steal it.

A greedy capitalist could have sold the moon landing in 1969 for something over $5 billion. The government spent $24 billion to get to the moon. It costs any government at least twice as much to do anything as it costs anyone else. It would have cost something under $12 billion to produce the Apollo program privately.

But Apollo was a crash program. If we had been in less of a hurry, it would have cost far less. While we were waiting, economic growth would increase the price for which the moon landing could be sold and technological progress would cut the cost of getting there. We would have arrived, at a profit, sometime in the seventies.

The American flag, on the moon or anywhere else, is worthless except as a symbol, a symbol of men achieving their ends by voluntary association, cooperating through mutual exchange in a free society. Capitalism. It is in no way honored by spending billions of dollars of tax monies to put a piece of painted metal on the moon.

POSTSCRIPT: Friedman’s law

Skeptical readers may want evidence for my claim that it costs any government twice as much as it should to do anything. A domestic example is the Post Office; private postal companies make a profit delivering third-class mail at half what the Post Office charges to deliver it a loss. A foreign example is Russia’s government-run economy, which invests twice as much of its GNP as we did at a comparable period in our development to achieve the same growth rate. Japan invests privately at the same rate as Russia and gets twice Russia’s growth rate.

[When this was written, the idea of a private enterprise space program was the sort of thing that only science-fiction writers and very far-out libertarians took seriously. Currently, it is the official policy of the incumbent administration, with at least two private firms building launch vehicles and selling their services.]