Neil Armstrong and the end of the Whig conceit

By Razib Khan | August 25, 2012 9:31 pm

It has been 40 years since he last human being set foot on the moon. I was not alive when this occurred. The Whig views history as a progression. When we recall the past we remember, perhaps pity, a less developed age.

Overall I disagree with declinists who simplistically portray our age as one of silver, that perhaps we live in the modern Western equivalent of late antique Rome. Certainly there is greatness all around us. And one can argue that the “space race” was driven not by ennobling sentiments, but rather the raw competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Be as that may be, could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West? Perhaps we do live in a fallen age in a sense, unable to rouse ourselves and recapture past glories, and even surpass them. The Hellenistic Greeks were a civilized people, who were more advanced than their Classical predecessors in particular details of science and engineering. Yet most scholars would suggest that there was something derivative and unoriginal when compared to the ferment of Athens’ golden century.

I wonder. Did Neil Armstrong ever consider when he set foot on the moon that humanity would not return for the last four decades of his life?

  • Brett

    Be as that may be, could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West? Perhaps we do live in a fallen age in a sense, unable to rouse ourselves and recapture past glories, and even surpass them.

    There’s the problem with the Apollo moon-shot missions, fantastic engineering feats they may have been: they set the bar really high while not giving us any infrastructure in space that might have led to a longer lasting human presence. Now any human mission into space gets compared with the moon landings, and the feeling until recently was a sense of triumph followed by anti-climax. That was unfortunate, but inevitable – it’s rare that you get a “spend money not time” support for anything not military in the US.

    If we have never gone for the Moon as the main objective, then we might be where we are now (low earth orbit and space stations), or possibly even further – and we would have a sense of steadily increasing progress.

    That said, I don’t think we’ll look back on the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West. I don’t think we even do that now, since the ’60s are mostly remembered for turbulence in the US. The 1950s tend to be looked upon as the “high point of the US”, particularly by people born in that period.

  • Steven Colson

    Cliodynamics could explain the glory & decline of a society. If one accepts this theory, things should soon change for the better in “Western” society.

  • Jeff Morton

    I agree with you that we could possibly look to the 60’s as our high point, however, since the space shuttle has come and gone and we have a manned space station in orbit now, I think we are past that original climax. For that time it wan an engineering miracle, but we’ve seen Mars and Titan, among other space interests and we’re going farther still. In the 60’s we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t even have cell phones, so going to the moon was science fiction turned fact. Now we have emerging private passenger space programs that we can watch their testing live on a computer or a cell phone, everything is known. But knowing only makes it more incredible, in my opinion.

  • imnobody

    Apologies for my English.

    could we soon look back to the 1960s as the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West?

    In a word, yes.

    Not only because of economics (1960 was the end of the great expansion after World War II), not only because science, but because of culture. People back then were optimistic, they had great hopes and dreams about science, society, progress.

    When I see how the generation of Neil Armstrong was when they were young, with all these hopes, I can’t help being envious. Today, even young people is cynical and pessimistic.
    This is the first generation in a long time who know it will live worse than they parents and it shows. Dreams and ideologies are things of the past and the only thing left is selfishness and a fight of everybody against everybody.

    The high point of the West has passed We are not in Augustus’ era but in the Antonine dinasty and we are entering a long, slow period of decadence, which will be imperceptible for some time.

  • zach
  • Razib Khan

    i read that post when it came out. one thing to note: if you migrate from a third world country to a first world country you notice that the future is shiny. but the shine wears off when it becomes the new normal.

  • Brett

    The high point of the West has passed We are not in Augustus’ era but in the Antonine dinasty and we are entering a long, slow period of decadence, which will be imperceptible for some time.

    Side-track, but the Edward Gibbon idea that the Roman Empire slowly declined into decadence after the Antonine Dynasty is nonsense.

  • Razib Khan

    #7, i wouldn’t describe it as decadence either. though i’m not necessarily sure that the 4th century recovery brought it back to the 2nd.

  • Razib Khan
  • Education Realist

    Funding was already a huge concern by the time of Apollo 11; Walter Mondale had been trying to kill Apollo before it got off the ground (before it burned on the ground, for that matter). So all the astronauts knew that, once they made it to the moon, that they’d be living on borrowed time.

    Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, said what was in everyone’s mind just 4 years after Armstrong walked on the moon:

    “Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

    That’s a man who knows he’s saying goodbye. They might have quietly hoped for a quick return for a few years. By the mid-70s, I don’t think any American thought we’d be going back in our lifetime.

    “Yet most scholars would suggest that there was something derivative and unoriginal when compared to the ferment of Athens’ golden century.”

    I feel this way, often. But we were able to fund the program at a time when we were experiencing unprecedented prosperity–able to fight a war, fund a huge “Great Society” program, and go to the moon. I don’t think we’ll ever have the money to achieve such heights again, unless we change our priorities beyond all recognition.

  • Brett

    They might have known it even before then. After Apollo 11, Nixon really took an ax to NASA’s budget (although it had been on the decline before then, peaking in 1966). He even wanted to cancel Apollo 16 and 17, but eventually backed down.

  • Kathy

    In the ’50s and ’60s we were a manufacturing powerhouse. We had a prosperous middle class and a talented and highly skilled working class. We had affordable higher education. We had powerful unions. We had a steeply graduated income tax structure. We were putting an end to racism and poverty. The unemployment rate was low. We were committed to taking care of the very old and the very young. We were committed to the preservation of western culture.
    What have we now? Bubbles and crashes and billionaires. Cell phones (made in China). Dub’ya. Minimum wage service economy (where we have employment at all). How anyone can look at this and fail to see decline is beyond me.

  • bob sykes

    I was born in 1943, and I spent that night watching the grainy black & white image of Armstrong’s walk with my youngest daughter.

    That was the very highlight of my life. When Nixon killed our space program (the corpse stank until the Shuttles were retired), he killed America. We are richer materially, but our culture is decadent, almost depraved. I will not mourn the passing of America. My family is long-lived, and I may see this country’s destruction and humiliation, but I will not care.

  • Dylan

    The space program fulfills the same purpose for a certain kind of white person (and their cultural allies) that the Rapture and the Singularity do for others: wish fulfillment to give some hope to the future and an illusion of meaning to the here and now. But like the Rapture, and probably the Singularity, it’s all bullshit fantasy.

    The economics are never, for foreseeable values of “never”, going to work out. We didn’t get our flying cars or hover bikes, and until we get a magical increase in transportation technologies that can put a kilo into orbit for orders of magnitude less cost than today nothing sustainable for meaningful numbers of people will happen in or beyond orbit. For that to happen would require some revolutionary breakthrough, not incremental improvements through wasting more money pushing the same old space program.

    So much for the technical problems. The fiscal and cultural ones are nearly as intractable, and Kathy at #12 gets it backwards with this: “We were putting an end to racism and poverty.”

    That’s exactly the problem, except it’s not a problem. An increasing share of our budget goes to antipoverty programs, and our daily and medium-term political thoughts go to fighting the Other over affirmative action, culture war issues, and immigration. The space program was the result of a unified, boring, oppressive white America turning out focused, bland, cookie cutter engineers.

    That’s not coming back, and good riddance. We lost expensive boondoggles that made you feel good, and in return we got a better standard of living and more social equality for a seemingly perpetually less productive underclass and all of the race hucksterism and social infighting that goes with it. As a white guy I might aesthetically prefer the old order, but I won’t pretend it was better for overall welfare/utility, nor that there weren’t some unavoidable costs to the transition.

  • Dylan

    The #9 cri-de-coeur boils down to this paragraph: “I don’t give a damn if robotic probes make more sense. I don’t give a damn about the views of academic committees or health and safety. I don’t give a damn about the supposed costs – money spent on space exploration is invested in science and technology right here on Earth, and has paid for itself many times over. There’s no point having a great civilization if all we do is sit on our little rock and just survive.”

    And a nation of Rorschach’s looks down and says, “no.”

    When your baldly stated argument is “fuck logic, scientific consensus, what other people would prefer to spend their billions on, and your own view of what is good in life, spend money on MEEEE!!!” don’t expect to get anywhere.

  • ReasJack

    Brett beat me to most of what I was going to say.
    I’ll add that while the moon missions were instrumental to a vision for the future of mankind shared by the men who made them happen, for a significant part of the culture the missions were something else. They were a proxy war with a military rival. They were a cultural validation of identity after the fashion of your local pro sports team. They were an arbitrary group exercise in proving ourselves, they way climbing Denali or running a marathon is for some individuals.

    I think many felt that something would transform in our favor as a result of accomplishing that goal. Expectations varied. Given how it was sold, and called for after the early Soviet triumphs, I believe many expected the successful moon missions would spawn a sea change in the cold war in our favor. Yet the proxy war in Vietnam raged on, the Iron Curtain stayed up, the Soviets did not suddenly lose their nerve in the face of our overwhelming technology, industry and wealth. The cold war was supposed to correlate strongly with the moon program in ways that would reveal themselves after we had done the deed. When this did not happen, people who thought it would lost interest.

    Another expectation was that the moon landing would usher in a new age similar to the era after the first voyage of Columbus. Somehow life would become socially and economically entwined with the Moon the way it became entwined with the New World in the 16th century and beyond. When it became obvious that going to the moon had more in common with getting to the South Pole or the tip of Everest in the 20th century than with European expansion into the American continents, the Moon no longer seemed the obvious route to a desirable future. Interesting certainly, valuable too, but in the way Little America is valuable, not the way the Louisiana Purchase was valuable.

    Rich nations regularly deem it necessary to spend freely to produce a large number of medal prospects for the Olympic games. Somehow this is supposed to be a measure of their commitment to the national human project. It is somehow easy for us to to convince ourselves that not having a high quality pole vaulter somehow condemns us as uncommitted to progress or high standards for ourselves as a nation. This might not be the case. There might be things that only feel like proxies for such commitment, and manned deep space exploration might be one of them.

  • Dylan

    I’m suddenly reminded of a sophomore year college bull session where everyone was asked how much money they would “need” for everything they would want in life. Most people picked levels in tens and hundreds of millions and the consensus was you were an asshole if you said a billion.

    I said $100 billion, because I wanted t to put myself on Mars. That’s the sort of egoism and personal concentration of resources that will be required to push this forward. And it still won’t leave anything sustainable behind.

  • Martin Hewson

    What gauge is there to measure “the ultimate high point in the spirit of the West”? Maybe the level of accomplishment or achievement? By that metric I think the West has had a long mountain chain of high points from the invention of the telescope onwards. But, yes it is difficult to point to any really major achievements, apart from computing, in the arts, economy, politics, or sciences since the 60s.
    Armstrong should probably be considered as one of the last of the great explorers. And the West has produced far more explorers than any other civilization for many centuries. Part of the problem is that what were once considered amazing accomplishments like discovering America are now in disrepute. Another part of the problem is that there is not much left to explore.

  • ziel

    #14 – Not sure what you’re saying. You’re saying we traded any substantial progress in space for “a better standard of living and more social equality for a seemingly perpetually less productive underclass and all of the race hucksterism and social infighting that goes with it” – and you feel that was a good trade? It’s an opinion and I don’t mean to argue about it – but just trying to understand if that is indeed your argument

  • Joe

    No photographic film has ever been invented that can withstand the temperature range on the Moon.

  • zach

    #12 – What’s your point… in the 50’s & 60s we also had McCarthyism & the Cold War & Cuban Missle crisis, Polio, the Korean & Vietnam wars, covert CIA operations in Latin America to prop up dictators, the Stonewall riots, Assigniations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLKJr, RFK, the list goes on and on.

    I guess if you were an upper middle class white man with your head in the sand, things looked pretty good in the 1950s & 60s. Many others were predicting we’d all destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons.

  • Paul

    The US hit a high point in 1966 and sat on a plateau for 3-4 years, but strains of overspending were definitely showing. The first Arab oil boycott was what threw us into the tailspin that we still haven’t pulled out of. The decision was made at that time to toss the middle class overboard and concentrate on fattening up wealthy stock market speculators, corporate executives and well-connected government insiders.

    That has been a continuing iterative process, helped along by the second Arab oil boycott, deregulation of the financial sector, job and technology offshoring, and continuing wars against whoever the “next Hitler” of the day is. Things like the space program just didn’t fit the new set of priorities. The only technologies worth focusing on were those that could be turned into mass consumer goods, justified by fear-based arguments (SDI, etc.), or used to increase the power imbalance between ordinary citizens and big government/big corporations (surveillance tech, etc.).

  • biologist

    Perhaps it’s a superficial comparison, but the post-Apollo disillusionment looks like:

  • ackbark

    In the 1960s there was a sense of popular power, the average person could feel a sense of power, one way or another and all the upheaval came from people feeling they could actually go out and seriously do something. That sense vanished during the 1970s largely because of television, when the average person came to realize watching tv is really all they were doing.

    Reagan’s appeal was an exploitation of that sense, but the ‘solution’ he presented was still only a vicarious tv experience.

  • Brett

    I don’t think we got anti-poverty programs and the like as a trade-off for declining investment in the manned space program. If anything, we’ve lost both together as time has gone on, with NASA’s funding peaking in the late 1960s (the same time that the Great Society was spending away). There’s just less political consensus to spend federal money, period, unless it’s for existing social programs for constituents with a lot of political clout (such as the elderly).

    As for “never”. . . I don’t know. I’m skeptical that there is some new, cheaper break-through that will drastically reduce launch costs, because rocketry is in many ways a mature technology. You have to try and figure out some way to save a ton of money in the production and ground infrastructure side of things, which SpaceX is (to their credit) trying to do. With an actual contract to get people in space, maybe they’ll pull it off.

  • ziel

    To provide a little perspective on the “anti-poverty programs vs. Space Exploration” controversy, the 2013 budget proposal for NASA is a bit less than $18b, while for Pell Grants it is about twice that, around $36b.

  • Amy

    I have trouble comprehending that the 60’s or 50’s were the golden years for the United States. My education improved tremendously by having people of color be my teachers. It was nice to have the best teacher teachings in the “white” school system instead of the best “white” teacher teaching. If I had been born in the 60’s and 50’s I may never have learned how to read. I’ve always believed that segregated schools hurt working class white students more than it hurt African-American students.

    I favor space exploration, but most of us donate more money to friends that have cancer, children’s hospitals, the arts and local poverty programs than we do to space exploration. I’d like to be hit up at the check out stand to donate a $1 for space exploration, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  • BDoyle

    One thing people have not mentioned is that there is really no good reason to send people to the moon now. It was different in 1969, because we didn’t know what was there. We can say now that there is no economic or military advantage to having humans travel to the moon, but we did not know this at the time. (Some people like to fantasize about mining anorthosite, but you can ignore them.) We certainly did get a lot of scientific information about the moon from the manned exploration. Again, at that time, that was the best way to get it. These days, we would not learn much from another expedition.

  • sid

    I believe this is teh first time I am commenting. been a lurker for years who knows 5-6 years.

    #21 Zach

    All your examples are a bunch of events and international power plays which also involved other players,plus some intrigue at home, social instability and other things that the world has seen in every corner at all moments of history. In fact your examples actually goes to show that there was a stronger social/cultural/economic/ ethnic/ cultural base and cohesion in USA to weather the 60s’ and afterwards, strength which by now is mostly gone. Just think compared to Vietnam or Korea a relatively minor war like Iraq has become decisively disastrous out of all proportion to it’s actual footprint which is minor even compared to the subjugation of the Philippines a hundred years back. Basically you have listed a number of unrelated and irrelevant events not any primary fundamental fault in the foundation of USA in the 50’s that were visible at the time. None of your example contradicts #12 Kathy’s point that the primary fundamental foundation of USA seemingly looked the strongest in the 50’s in economic, scientific, cultural, social, ethnic, racial etc both in relative and absolute terms esp. when compared to modern times.

    Upper middle class white men were executing the cold war on this side of the war and these same people were predicting MAD, and the same people were also resisting the phenomenon of the 60’s which they retrospectively didn’t’ really understand. And the rest of the world were preoccupied with their own lives and had few skins in the nuclear game. Your statement is irrelevant and so damn untrue. Wonder why did you say that out of all things?

    P.S. McCarthy was essentially correct. He may have been an asshole but he was essentially correct in that the highest institutions in USA including the USG was riddled with people who were either soviet agents or sympathizers. Given that the other side dominates the public discourse and airspace, they have retroactively made McCarthy a devil for the obvious reasons of being one of the last anti-left authoritarian to run a major campaign against their leftist predecessors.

    #27. Amy, thanks for the laughs……….keep it coming. LoL

    BTW happy 10 yrs on the net Razib. Goodluck on the next 10 yrs.

  • Chris_T_T

    Brett is essentially correct here. Apollo’s sole purpose was to upstage the Soviets and was never part of any real ‘progression’. If anything, it set back manned space exploration by greatly inflating expectations while leaving nothing to actually build on (the Saturn V is a case in point, NASA had no use for a rocket that big once Apollo was over, so it was discarded).

    Instead of developing the technology and infrastructure a sustained human presence would actually need, NASA and the public have been fixated on recreating the glory days of Apollo.

    And the 1950s-60s nostalgia is rather silly.

  • Paul

    NASA and the public have been fixated on recreating the glory days of Apollo.

    Including, for that matter, Neil Armstrong. He criticized the Obama administration for terminating the Constellation program. Never mind that that program, “Apollo on Steroids”, was found unexecutable for budgetary reasons (never mind the engineering travesty that was the Aries 1).

    It’s a shame the last part of his life was so compromised and backward looking.

  • Rationalist

    It is hard to ignore the fact that the last significant thing Armstrong did was attack SpaceX.

    I hope that my last meaningful action in life is not such a let-down for those who loved me.

  • Rationalist

    @14 Dylan:

    “the Rapture and the Singularity do for others: wish fulfillment to give some hope to the future and an illusion of meaning to the here and now. But like the Rapture, and probably the Singularity, it’s all bullshit fantasy.”

    I hate it when people throw the rapture and the singularity into the same category.

    I hate it even more when people criticise those who choose to find meaning and purpose in entities and events which stand some chance of being real, such as human space exploration or a (beneficial) singularity.

    The vast majority of people on this planet draw hope and meaning from flat-out fairy stories called religions. Surely people like Dylan should at least give a few points to singularity true-believers for moving their target-of-hope closer to something realistic.

    Anyway I doubt that the singularity is bullshit. The key question isn’t whether it will happen, but whether it will be for better or for worse, whether it will increase or decrease equality and whether humanity will avoid some kind of disaster before we get there.

  • pconroy

    @29, Sid,

    Thanks for breaking Omerta!

    You beat me to it by saying that McCarthy was right! If you watch the history channel when they interview former KGB agents and managers, they confirm exactly what McCarthy and others suspected, that the US was awash in Communist spies. The USSR figured correctly that subverting the American Dream was easier to do than winning a conventional or nuclear war.

    But that begs the next question, who really won the Cold War?????? The US is now groaning under the weight of Marxist/Feminist ideology and Marxist inspired programs like Affirmative Action – that’s where the American Dream went to… the USSR did manage to subvert it!

  • al

    No photographic film has ever been invented that can withstand the temperature range on the Moon.


    There was no heat protection for the Hasselblad cameras for the temperatures on the moon of plus 100 degrees C and minus 100 degrees C. There was also no high-frequency radiation protection for the cameras.

  • pconroy

    @20, Joe – @35, al

    Rammstein released a video a few years ago that made fun of the Moon Landing and American hegemony in general, called “Amerika”

    Rammstein – Amerika:

    Cut to 3:46 for the salient piece

  • Grey

    @28 “One thing people have not mentioned is that there is really no good reason to send people to the moon now.”

    Until you try and build a colony on the moon you won’t know what all the problems and pitfalls will be. The experience gained is the benefit and the moon is closest.

  • Randall Parker

    Zach, Most people of all races and both sexes in the 1950s and 1960s experienced rising living standards. The benefits from rising productivity flowed to a much broader base back then than they do today.

    Part of our problem today is higher natural resource costs. The easy oil and easy minerals have been extracted. We have to try harder just to remain at the same living standard and we compete with industrializing Asian countries for the remaining ores and oil.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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