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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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