One of the things that has always baffled me about Ayn Rand (a self-described rational egoist and free-marketer) was her gushing endorsement of NASA's manned space flight program. She celebrates it as a symbol of the potential of rationality, but completely ignores the fact that this rationality emanated from the centralized, coercive state. The fact that this was a government program should have given her cause to consider whether this sort of project was, or ever could be, the product of free men. Another reason to pause is the recognition that this project was instigated in direct response to a challenge from the USSR--"let's see if we can beat them at their own game"!
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
--Henry David Thoreau
Manned space exploration is pure political propaganda, financed by tribute from slaves. Rand should have seen that, but she (and her present-day disciples) are apparently blind to it. Erika Holzer says that Rand treated centralized, coercive planning as a given and figured that we might as well get something worthwhile (i.e. technology-based spectacles) out of it. But when Rand writes "Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical" she is elevating her own wishful thinking over the actual forces that drive human behavior. The Apollo program was political from its conception to its execution. It was conceived to justify corporate liberalism at home, and American hegemony abroad. It was designed to engage the sense of wonder of 10 year-old boys while also speaking to their hardnosed elders by demonstrating the awesome power of the USA.
The issue of practical benefits is absent from Rand's assessment of the Apollo program. Holzer even endorses the view (expressed by Krauthammer), that considerations of practicality are a distraction from the true purpose of the spectacle. However, this illustrates exactly why no rational, free man would expend substantial effort on this project. Krauthammer says that "we retreated" from the moon, but the truth is that "we" had no reason to stay. "We" went there simply to show that "we" could do it. Any attempt to create a permanent human presence on the moon or send people to Mars using modern technology would be the largest boondoggle in human history. Maybe these projects would be feasible after extensive robotic exploration and infrastructure development, but not in the near future.
There's a reason I've been putting we in quotes: the most perverse message from these "individualist" cheerleaders of manned space flight is that they portray human greatness as a social project rather than an individual project. They speak as though the only alternative to manned space flight is to vainly obsess over the eradication of poverty or get lost in shallow self-gratification (egoism, perhaps?). They ignore the possibility of redirecting money from manned space flight to basic scientific research, both terrestrial and cosmic. Most fundamentally they deny the possibility that individuals, left with control over their lives and the fruit of their labors, could ever contribute to anything worthwhile.
Note: The title may lead some readers to expect a full argument against sending people into space (see comments). Instead, these readers will find nothing more than an individualist criticism of Ayn Rand's argument for manned space exploration as a form of ideological propaganda. If there are any other serious arguments for manned space exploration, I do not know of them and this essay does not address them. I have not seen any serious proposals for a manned space exploration program that had scientific or economic goals. If such proposals existed, then I would retract the title, but so far everyone (including Presidents Kennedy and Bush) seem to view manned space exploration as ideological propaganda. My disdain for current proposals for manned space exploration do not extend to robotic exploration, or continued experimentation with long term (but near-Earth) space habitation, nor does it apply to some hypothetical future time when manned space exploration could have a serious economic or scientific purpose.