America Built This

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and a genuine American hero, died last Saturday at the age of 82.

Armstrong led a relatively private life in the years following his historical achievement. When he did return to the public spotlight it was to stand up for the agency where he built his career and whose mission he never wavered to support. In May of last year, Armstrong joined fellow astronauts Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon) to condemn President Obama's cancellation of NASA's Constellation program. In "Is Obama Grounding JFK's Space Legacy?" the astronauts wrote:

Obama's advisers, in searching for a new and different NASA strategy with which the president could be favorably identified, ignored NASA's operational mandate and strayed widely from President Kennedy's vision and the will of the American people.

In 1969, NASA's budget was 2.4 percent of the entire federal budget. In 2011 it was .53 percent. 

This week, plastered on the walls and on signs carried by delegates at the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida, was "We Built This," the party's response to a distorted quote of President Obama's. Never mind that the Tampa Bay Times Forum was publicly financed, and never mind the implications of basically deriving a party slogan from a lie. The attack on the role of government is alive and well. 

This is a beat we've covered before and one we will stay on through the election and beyond. When Paul Ryan first announced his plan to bring federal spending levels down to 20 percent of GDP (without detailing exactly what he would cut), we showed how it was rooted in ideology, not fiscal reality, and how it would undermine crucial investments in technology and sustainable energy. When the luxury car maker Audi launched an ad campaign playing off our crumbling highway infrastructure ("The roads are underfunded by $450 billion. With the right car you may never notice!") we held it up as the absurd symptom of austerity economics that it was. Shouldn't we be outraged? 

The familiar refrain of libertarians and conservatives is that only a truly free market will solve our economic woes. It is government that is holding us -- though I should say "me" -- back. A truly free market might even put someone on the moon again

Which brings us back to Armstrong. In the same open letter, the three astronauts argued:

Congress stated that rather than depending on NASA subsidies, the development of commercial sources to supply cargo and crew to the International Space Station should be a partnership between government and industry.

Entrepreneurs in the space transportation business assert that they can offer such service at a very attractive price — conveniently not factoring in the NASA-funded development costs. These expenditures, including funds to insure safety and reliability, can be expected to be substantially larger and more time consuming than the entrepreneurs predict.

The common good can be an abstract thing, but that doesn't make it any less worth fighting for. We did not go to the moon for the spin-offs alone. Kennedy spoke of the "American Enterpise" and "our obligation to ourselves and others" in selling his program. The case for a strong and positive role for government needs to be made daily. We strive to provide it here at Demos. 

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