The Problem with Flying to the Moon and F-22s

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Last week, a starstruck Charles Krauthammer delivered a plaintive eulogy to American's outer-space program, trumpeting the many reasons why America must will itself back to the moon in the next ten years. Krauthammer's summons our eyes to the heavens:

That is the moon. On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints -- untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history, the moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke.

I'm sorry to ruin the moment for anybody, but am I the only person who feels terribly unmoved by this eloquent cosmic paean?


Apparently not. This point has been made before, but again: The money that CK wants us to spend on moon travels isn't structurally earmarked for America's Dreams or the Human Potential Fund. It comes out of the same coffers that we use to spend on education, health care, highways, and so on. I'm sorry if that seems buzz-killingly circumspect, but what's the matter with practicality when it comes to tens of billions of dollars? If Krauthammer were interested in making a practical case for space travel, I would be interested in listening. Instead -- and I do appreciate his honesty -- we get a different reason:

Why do it? It's not for practicality. We didn't go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it.

And so, in the span of 700 words, a man who has written eloquently about the dangers of pork is suddenly an advocate of pointless spending, so long as the pandered constituency is our patriotic, galactic wanderlust.

It's amazing how fiscal conservatism can be magically cured by dreamy visions of a piece of metal leaving the ground. I'm not just talking about rocket ships; I'm also talking about the looming vote over the future of the F-22 program. The F-22 is an extravagant, impressive fighter jet conceived in the 1980s to fight an air enemy that never really materialized. It has so little practical purpose in the current global war that it's supersonic gleam has never flashed over the sands of Iraq or Afghanistan. Even Defense Sec. Robert Gates wants to scrap the program.

Of course some Republicans want to save the program, to the tune of another $1.8 billion this year. At least they offer "practical" reasons: The wars of tomorrow. I don't know what the wars of tomorrow will look like, but I do see that that the wars of tomorrow in the 1980s are the wars of today, and they're being won and lost on tactics of counterinsurgency that have little to do with the F-22.

This is not an argument against innovation, and it's certainly not an argument against military preparedness -- in 2007, we spent $130 billion on our Air Force as China spent $44 billion on its entire military. Instead it's an argument for choices. Our spending is the most concrete expression of our real national values, and in a time of fiscal crisis, it fill me, not with a sense of glory, but wonder that Krauthammer and others find occasion to relax their instinct to oppose impractical spending only when the issue involves expensive airborne steel.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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