Does America still have the Right Stuff?

Forty years ago today astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of their Apollo spacecraft onto the moon and into what Aldrin described as “magnificent desolation”.

On May 25 1961, when President Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon, the rocketry and computerization that would be required had not yet been invented, the funds to support the program had not been secured, and those that would manage the coordination of government agencies and civilians were overwhelmed by the challenge before them.

Chris Kraft, who first heard about a mission to the moon when Kennedy made his speech and later became head of Mission Control, called a trip to the moon “Buck Rogers stuff” that couldn’t be carried out in “any time period that we were dealing with.” Aldrin called the effort “bodacious”.

The original moon shot was advanced, in part, through tragedy. The assassination of President Kennedy served to elevate the Apollo program to untouchable status, and the fatal Apollo 1 fire in 1967 forced numerous design changes and a discipline for testing that would be required for success. And there was this little thing called the cold war — the Apollo program was an opportunity to demonstrate the power over Capitalism over Communism.

Mitigating climate change is an easier shot in some ways: much of the technology we need already exists (see the McKinsey cost curve), but harder in others (partisan politics, quarterly reporting, and delayed gratification). We’ve had our back to the net for too long and left ourselves with another 10 year countdown. It’s time for all of us to channel our inner astronaut, rocket scientist, or science fiction hero and show the world that America still has the right stuff.

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  1. Geoff Styles - July 22, 2009

    As an analogy concerning the kinds of goals we can achieve when we harness our collective energies, Apollo works well. However, as a model for transforming our energy economy, it falls short in crucial ways. The Apollo project had to assemble a new industry out of the existing aviation industry and create significant new elements, ultimately involving 400,000 people. However, its apex only had to be big enough to deliver 12 people to the surface of the moon and return them: a baker’s dozen of Saturn V rockets, the last couple of which were scrapped after Apollos 18-20 were canceled. (Skylab used one, as I recall, the others are lawn ornaments at NASA facilities.) We need the same sort of fusion and transformation of industries, but its apex must meet the energy needs of 300 million people and all the businesses and industries that employ them and produce the goods they buy. That’s a much, much bigger challenge in an engineering and financial sense, and 10 years is not enough time to get us to that destination, though it is certainly enough time to get well underway.

  2. James Oates - July 22, 2009

    Hi Geoff,
    Great comment, and, following your thought, it seems that we actually need to meet the needs of 6+ billion people, at today’s point. Seems that we really have far too many humans on the planet.
    Warmly,
    Jim
    http://www.CooperationEarth.com/earth

  3. Don - July 22, 2009

    It’s because of thoughtful posts like Geoff’s that I enjoy this blog. Well said.
    I would only add that we will need much larger and more direct participation of the public than in the Apollo program, where the public participated mainly through support and taxes.
    This is why I think it is brilliant that Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize – his work is an attempt to directly engage the public, and that will be difficult but crucial.

  4. Rosanna Cavanaugh - July 29, 2009

    One point that should be considered is that much of the space race was between Russia and the USA. Changing our technology to improve our carbon profile is much more challenging in that it involves the entire globe. We can do our part, and I hope we can pull together to take the challenge and win, but for the planet to win, all countries will have to embrace. This is the true challenge.

  5. skeptic - July 31, 2009

    Two points: One: in the moon race, we had a clear, simple “enemy” / opponent a child could point at and understand, and our government was very happy to identify an enemy and compete. There was dominance and power to be had by winning against Russia. Global warming is a huge, vague Concept, beyond the grasp of many people, and there’s no obvious win and no obvious governmental benefit to improvements.
    Two: call me part of the tinfoil hat society: if we put a man on the moon five decades ago, why will it be another two decades before we can do it again???

  6. Geoff - August 1, 2009

    Re your question two, I’d say it’s because we’re unwilling to marshall anything like the former resources to do it. Nor does it help that we have no current capacity to build moon rockets, not just in an industrial sense but also institutionally, with everyone who built the last ones either retired or deceased. We also want to do it in a way that is less likely to result in the same outcome of, “Been there, done that, let’s drop it.” That means staying longer and doing more interesting things while there, as part of a more cohesive strategy for exploring the solar system.
    If there were some overwhelmingly compelling reason to go to the moon on a crash basis, there might be a way to cobble something together in a few years at considerable risk to the crew. Otherwise, NASA would virtually be starting from scratch.