No Bucks, No Tom Wolfe Analogies

During the last two weeks, a series of dizzying, stomach-churning events have sent shock waves around the world.

The American financial system has come thisclose to a complete meltdown, threatening to take the planet’s economy down with it. A venerable investment firm has collapsed, another was forced into a shotgun merger, and U.S. government now owns 80 percent of the world’s largest insurance company. President George W. Bush – about to bequeath a half-trillion dollar annual budget deficit on his successor – has proposed spending an additional $700 billion to buy out bad real estate investments. And that might be conservative. The national debt will be raised to a staggering $11.3 trillion.

You might think this would cause people to rethink some of our national priorities – such as building expensive housing for a handful of astronauts on the Moon, for example. But, you’ll be happy to know that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is having none of it.

In the midst of what might be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Griffin delivered a speech at the Los Angeles Air Force Base on the subject of seeking the “right stuff.” Griffin waxed nostalgically about the days when NASA was able to put men on the Moon. Echoing the late President John F. Kennedy, Griffin said:

“So I ask, why not dare to do the great things, the hard things, the meaningful things which makes our country great? It is a choice, a choice of strategic importance for how we as a small group of people in this room tonight and as a nation choose to spend our time, resources, and energy. Do we choose to spend our time on things which will have lasting meaning and improve the lives of current and future generations, or do we choose to waste our time with trivial pursuits?”

A fine question. Griffin’s answer, of course, is that we must continue with the lunar program. Depending upon one’s point of view, it’s either a visionary attempt to try to keep people focused on long-term national goals, or it is totally out of touch with the harsh realities facing the country. If you are losing your house or job, you would tend to think the latter.

One thing is very clear: America doesn’t really have any spare change to give NASA the billions of additional dollars it needs just to do its job properly. There are many reasons why, but it really all comes down to two overarching themes: recklessness and a lack of vision by the country’s leaders.

  • Reckless behavior on Wall Street, where greed and short-term profits overwhelmed long-term profitability and stability;
  • Reckless borrowing by consumers, who thought the party would never end;
  • Reckless stupidity from the Bush Administration, whose own spend-but-not-tax policies and foreign misadventures has left the country mired in debt and war while undermining its own expansive vision of space exploration.

Griffin can dismiss the real pain people are feeling. He can quote Tom Wolfe all he wants. And why not? Wolfe’s book is one of the seminal works on the early American space program; it’s by far the most entertaining. An inspiring tale of succeeding against all odds.

But, Wolfe also understood something else essential about the space program, pithily summed up by a couple of characters in the movie version:

“No bucks – no Buck Rogers.

Right now, we’re pretty out of bucks. And the odds have grown long. This story may not have a happy ending.