Monday, August 30, 2010

Unintended Consequences

Congress often passes laws that have unintended consequences. The sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a paper about the subject as early as 1936. Some of unintended consequences are serendipitous, but others are negative or perverse. It seems that Congress has a way of introducing negative or perverse consequences.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was designed to increase revenues for America and protect American jobs, but it almost single-handedly destroyed the world’s economy. And was it President Clinton’s administration that caused taxes to be raised on luxury boats? The result was that the poor guys who made boats were suddenly out of work.

Individuals can cause unintended consequences as well. When I began to write my book, The Insider I had no ill will against anyone. Yet, as the book is about to appear on the market, I found I have caused damage to a great American astronaut. I had no such intention.

It was in 2002 that General and astronaut Thomas Stafford produced his book, We Have Capture. It is a good book and I recommend it. The General is an American hero. Unfortunately, Stafford thought he was the first American to reach the secret Soviet launch station called Baikonur in April of 1975. He said so in his book.

General Stafford was not at all the first American to reach that space launch station. If it were not central to my book, I would have said nothing, but my book is about the guy who did get there first, and why he went there.

The Insider is about Tad Benson, MD, a space medicine scientist. President Kennedy got him to agree (through Hugh Dryden) to go to both Moscow and Baikonur to share ideas on space medicine. Oh, I know there are lots of people who said Khrushchev and Kennedy never reached an agreement on this subject, but they are wrong. Benson spent almost nine years traveling back and forth to the USSR, doing what he could to keep both cosmonauts and astronauts alive in space.

I knew Benson. He was a serious man a good friend who died too early. I checked with various agencies of the federal government to find out what he was doing during the years 1962-1971, and found that Benson had been a contractor to the NSA, CIA, NASA and other groups. I found that he also got an award from the USSR for his work.

There was a stranger on Gen Stafford’s plane to Siberia. He was on the bus when it arrived at the launch station. Stafford did not mention that Soviet scientists hugged and otherwise ganged up around the stranger, slapping him on the back and ignoring the other Americans. Tad told me about it, and the story appeared elsewhere in the Internet. Tad said that the other scientists wondered, “How did the Soviets know this guy?” but they were never told.

So I told the story in my book The Insider, with as much detail as I could. Tad was dying as he told me and we did not have a whole lot of time. I did not set out to take any of the glory that General Stafford richly deserves. But I did want to tell Tad’s story because I am one of the few in the world who knows it. And my health isn’t all that great.

The really sad part of the story about Tad and his heroic adventures is that I am not allowed to use his real name.