The Moon, Cronkite & Health Care

Washington Matters

The Moon, Cronkite & Health Care

Forty years ago, man stepped on the surface of the moon, forever changing mankind's place in world history, the solar system and the universe. Today, man is trying to fix health care. Which one will prove to have been the harder to accomplish? Looks like health care reform is beating Neil Armstrong, NASA, President Kennedy and the late CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite on this score. 

Cronkite, who lived and reported the American Century, delivering the news from World War II to Reagan, was one of the leading and most impassioned and enthusiastic national advocates for the mission to the moon, memorably losing his composure on air briefly when reporting the "Eagle has landed" at Tranquility base. History changed forever that day 40 years ago. It is rightly being celebrated and commemorated this week and also in the many tributes to Cronkite, who cared so dearly about it and seemed to speak for the nation those many years ago.

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I attended a lecture he gave in 2000 on the importance of the landing. Cronkite remarked that landing a man on the moon was so important and historic that if mankind were to survive another 500 years and if future humans were then asked to say one thing they knew about the 20th Century, it would be the moon landing. More than world wars, more than the atom bomb and certainly more than the health care reform effort we have today.

A friendly test: Name one thing you remember most easily about the 15th Century. Most people would say Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery to the New World in 1492. Cronkite was probably right about the moon landing, 500 years from now.


Surprisingly, the debate in advance of the historic Apollo missions and today's less historic but still sweeping and ambitious health care reform effort is similar. Opponents of the moon mission at the time said it would cost too much, would not produce useful knowledge and would drive up the deficit while a war was on and rob funding for much more important domestic programs, including education and social welfare. Sound a little familiar?

The moon missions are now famous, of course, for fueling an amazingly diverse and expansive technology industry, spawning thousands of commercial spin-off products and a host of private sector technology companies that employ hundreds of thousands. And it sparked a new age in higher education in engineering and science.

It was a modern rennaissance, a giant leap, and an economic rocket engine all on its own, and there's no turning back. It also made America especially proud as the indisputable leader in space. And of course, we remain so, even audaciously now contemplating a manned mission to Mars in 2030, however unattainable critics might say that is today.

In the same respect, U.S. scientific research has developed arguably the best health care in the world in the last several decades and in so many areas, including cancer research, vaccines, heart surgery, clinical care and pharmaceuticals, but at ever spiralling cost, spurring years and decades of debate and litigation and failed efforts at reform that would cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to get right.  


The current health care reform effort looks to be the most promising in years, but it is certainly, and increasingly, looking hard to accomplish, and it is appearing a goal that many fear is too ambitious, too far to reach...maybe not this summer and maybe not this year. Or, perhaps. That's an unknown for now.

What is known in retrospect was that there was a national determination and clear leadership to put man on the moon 40 years ago. President Kennedy essentially destined it in his inaugural address in January, 1961. Engineers followed through. That great national cause and leadership has yet to reveal itself fully behind the current health care reform effort to date. It's hard to see much happening without a larger push, though. It doesn't have to equal the spirit of the moon mission, but it should need to approach it to be meaningful.

That said, don't be surprised this week to hear President Obama and health reform advocates invoking the spirit of the early moon missions and its leaders, including Walter Cronkite in his own way, as an example of what it takes to shepherd success -- hard won, uncertain at first, across a sea of cynics, then accomplished, lasting and forever historic. Health care reformers might do themselves a bit of good to remember how the moon landing was done 40 years ago. Nothing was certain then. The lessons remain.