Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s glorious 1995 epic, tells the heroic true story of America’s doomed third manned mission to the moon. On April 14, 1970, some 56 hours into the flight, a crippling explosion rocked the spacecraft’s service module, forcing NASA to abort the moon landing and concentrate on bringing the crew safely back to earth. The movie grippingly captures the first tense moments after the jolt of the explosion, as the astronauts and mission control engineers in Houston grapple with a cacophony of alarms and flashing warning lights, and try to make sense of torrents of contradictory incoming data amidst the din of crosstalk and reports of mounting system failures.
After several interminable minutes, Gene Krantz (Ed Harris), NASA’s legendary flight director, steps in to impose order on the barely controlled chaos inside Mission Control. He tells his engineers to quiet down, lights a cigarette, takes a long, deep draw, and says:
“Can we review our status here… Let’s look at these things from a… from a standpoint of status. What have we got on that spacecraft that’s good?”
This systematic approach yields a gloomy picture, as the gravity of the astronauts’ predicament begins to sink in. But taking that first firm step – organizing the information to isolate what still works – produces the beginnings of a solution that ultimately averts disaster and brings the crew home.
It strikes me that, as a country, we are in a comparable position today. True, we have not had a single “Houston, we have a problem” moment. The failures have been gradual and cumulative, not catastrophic, but now the lights are flashing and the alarms are impossible to ignore. Our inertial navigation system has been failing for years, the craft is badly off course and headed into the Sun. Our computer data is corrupted, the controls are unresponsive, thrusters are firing randomly and oxygen is venting out into space. It’s almost as though the craft has been hijacked by some malevolent alien intelligence.
We have one advantage over the crew of Apollo 13 – we know inside and out what has gone wrong, and what systems have failed. The conservative blogosphere is good at diagnosing the problems. Ricochet has been cataloging them for years and Son of Spengler has just given us an excellent analysis of our recent institutional failures. We know what doesn’t work.
The question is, what have we got on this spacecraft that’s good? What are the specific onboard systems that are still functioning and that we can use to save the mission?
Here is my short list, in no particular order.
1. Capital markets. The lifeblood of capitalism still flows and Wall Street is its beating heart. Despite the cronyism and overregulation, the world still comes here to raise capital on the best available terms. Our capital markets are the most liquid and best regulated in the world, all things considered, and the underlying legal infrastructure is regular, predictable and relatively free from corruption. And there is as yet no good alternative to the dollar.
2. Texas. It is my understanding that Texas works.
3. Silicon Valley. Despite the hype, and despite the increasingly cozy relationship between high tech and politics, we still seem to know how to innovate.
4. Hollywood. Say what you will, but Rob’s friends in L.A. know what they’re doing. Apollo 13 is an example.
5. Basic science. The U.S. is still where it’s at when it comes to basic, hard-science research.
6. The military (partial credit). I understand that it’s just another government bureaucracy, subject to the same dysfunctions, inanities, and perverse incentives as all the rest. In fact, because it is more rigidly hierarchical, it may be more dysfunctional in some ways. And yes, the Pentagon proves every day that monopsony is a miserable model for acquiring hardware. But the military may be our last formal institution dedicated to safeguarding and preserving the traditional values of a nation state. It contains pockets of true excellence. And, when given a discrete mission suited its purpose, it knows how to get it done.
What am I missing? What did I get wrong? How do we work the problem?