Dean Martin once sang, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore . . .” . Recently, when the moon hit President Obama’s eye, it turned into a budget cut. The moon’s not getting the love from the president. According to Mr. Obama’s recently proposed budget, there will be no return to the moon in 2020.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I can’t stand the thought of not going back to the moon. July 20, 1969 – the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface – is still one of the absolute best days of my life. When the lunar lander, the Eagle, touched down in the Sea of Tranquility I was sitting on a beach in Rhode Island. Radios were playing, and lots of people heard Armstrong say “The Eagle has landed.” Applause and shouts of joy broke out all over the beach. That night I stayed up late to watch the first moon walk – and in the morning I watched the entire walk replayed.
The idea that human space exploration has just taken a huge step backward is like a punch in the gut. It’s just my feeling, but I’ve always felt that man needs to go into space. There are some things that no machine can possibly do. There are some opportunities that we don’t even know exist, and won’t until a human being goes there to find them.
But President Obama didn’t get elected to fulfill a lunar mission. He was elected with the multiple missions of taming the budget (not easy to do after two wars, a huge pharmaceutical benefit in Medicare, and a substantial tax cut); restoring the economy after the worst financial numbers since the Great Depression; and, according to his campaign speeches (and largely endorsed by the election results of November 2008), reforming health care.
When things are good, it’s easy to manage multiple missions, which means determining your mission and prioritizing your efforts isn’t all that important. There’s enough money to fund most of your efforts, and the failures don’t seem very bad in an atmosphere of success.
Look at GE under Jack Welch. GE made light bulbs. And it made appliances, so successfully it bought Black & Decker to add to its appliances marketing muscle. It was one of the world leaders in the manufacturer of jet engines for aircraft. It had a huge and profitable investment bank tucked under its conglomerate umbrella. And it bought NBC, at the time, the No. 1 network in television. As the cable television market expanded, GE expanded, creating the CNBC and MSNBC networks, and buying or creating cable channels like USA and the Sci Fi channel (now bewilderingly known as SyFy), and buying Universal Studios (movies, TV series production, and theme parks) along the way.
Welch’s philosophy was: Buy a company when it’s No. 1 or 2 in its market. Doesn’t matter what its mission is – doesn’t matter what the parent company’s mission is. It only matters that you’re No.1 or 2 and can make money. Mission doesn’t matter – money does.
Now in 2010, GE’s financial arm (like most large financial institutions) is struggling to recover from the market crash in late 2008. NBC is No. 4 out of 4 networks. Universal Studios has had the lowest total box office of any major studio for a couple of years, now. GE is hoping to sell a majority stake in what is now known as NBCUniversal to Comcast. GE doesn’t seem to have a clue and isn’t making money quite as easily as in the old days.
Having a mission might come in pretty handy right about now.
Dwight Eisenhower stayed focused on beating the Germans by invading Normandy. Ulysses S. Grant had a single purpose: Destroy the Confederate Army. George Washington knew that he could not succeed in beating the British if he didn’t keep the Continental Army intact and understood that retreat was better than defeat. These men all knew what their missions were and never forgot what they needed to do to succeed at them.
With that in mind, I have to say I approve of Mr. Obama’s proposal to axe future lunar missions from the budget. It pains me. As a kid, I never wanted to be president. I wanted to be an astronaut. Big time. But right now, the missions that count are the president’s, not the astronauts’.