A good friend I had dinner with recently is a project manager for software intensive projects for major government contractors. He was explaining some of the government’s contracting efforts in the IT field. “It’s complicated, to be sure, but it’s not rocket science,” he said.
That phrase – which we often hear – reminded me that at one time the U.S. government really did do rocket science. In the 1960s, the United States had charted a course for the moon. President John F. Kennedy boldly went before Congress in May, 1961, and said it was his goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Kennedy never lived to see his goal attained. And on January 27, 1967, the entire U.S. space effort was dealt a disastrous blow. A fire broke out on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were going through routine tests of the Apollo I spacecraft when a spark burst into flame in the space capsule. The oxygen-rich atmosphere fed the flames as the three astronauts banged on their capsule window. Within minutes, all three men were dead.
It was a devastating event. It required a complete re-engineering of our Apollo spacecraft, and a detailed re-examination of every aspect of the space program. Nonetheless, American ingenuity and technical expertise triumphed less than two and a half years later. On July 19, 1969, Apollo XI’s lunar excursion module landed at Tranquility Base on the moon.
We had beaten the Soviets and had achieved President Kennedy’s goal – five months ahead of his deadline. That was President Kennedy’s “signature” achievement. The night Apollo XI touched down on the Moon, someone put flowers on John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington and left the note: “Mr. President: The Eagle has landed.”
It was just 905 days from the Apollo I fire to the touchdown on the moon. President Obama signed his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, on March 23, 2010.
The scheduled rollout date was well known for years: October 1, 2013.
Safely re-elected, the president’s team had no more important goal than to preside over a smooth rollout. With no foreign nations competing with us, they had 1,289 days to get it right.
And yet, despite longer time to prepare than the space program had, the news is full of the Obamacare rollout’s numerous flaws: They didn’t adequately test the system. They didn’t contract properly. Their program management was obviously flawed.
This led my IT friend to wonder if it was designed to fail. I demur on that one. Yes, it is true that President Obama and many of his leading liberal supporters are on record saying they preferred the Canadian “single payer” system – that is, socialism straight up.
Yet the built-to-fail hypothesis ignores the obvious “debacle” of the ObamaCare rollout. The scorn and ridicule heaped on Obama administration as a result cannot give anyone confidence that this crew should run our health care at any level. And it may still prove to be an election disaster for the president’s supporters in Congress. Already, the Obama White House is having to reassure nervous senators up for re-election next year.
My tech-savvy friend says this entire Obamacare website development effort looks like something from the 1970s and early ’80s, when there was not much in the way of good systems and software engineering practices.
All of that may be true, I replied. But in those days, we landed on the moon successfully six times. And we even brought the stricken Apollo XIII home safely.
This is 30-plus years later, and best practices have evolved today, not only for the engineering aspects but also the program management and contracting functions.
But maybe what we should be thinking about is ’70s socialism after all. Like Cuba: they have single-payer government-run health care, the heart’s desire of all left-wing intellectuals here. And I understand you can buy a really well-maintained 1972 Camaro there, too.
Robert Morrison is senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.