July 19, 2009


I have a new article at Salon, “Goodnight, moon travel.”

I discuss how the challenge of averting catastrophic climate change is quite different from the Apollo program – particularly in scale and participation.  The public and private sector of this country alone will need an Apollo-level effort every year for the next few decades to avert climate catastrophe.  And Apollo was, ultimately, a government program that Americans could gaze at and wonder from afar. Decarbonizing the economy is a national effort that every American will need to participate in.

I focus in the piece on John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University, in which he famously declared that the U.S. would be the first country to send a man to the moon by decade’s end.  But reread or listen to the speech and you will be amazed by its prescience:

We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds….

… such a pace [of technological change] cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers.

For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own…

Relatedly, the point that I made in, “Sorry, Buzz Aldrin, we’re not sending people to Mars by 2029 to ‘homestead’ or study ‘climate change’,” is one that the great science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson almost makes in the Washington Post today:

So, what actions, taken today, will help our children, and theirs, and theirs? From that perspective, decarbonizing our technology and creating a sustainable civilization emerge as the overriding goals of our age. If going into space helps achieve those goals, we should go; if going into space is premature, or falls into the category of “a good idea if Earth is healthy,” it should be put on the science fiction shelf, where I hope our descendants will be free to choose it if they want it.

We already know that putting more people beyond Earth orbit – a fantastically expensive thing to do – offers little hope of helping us on the urgent mission of creating a sustainable civilization.  Robinson should just say so, but his science fiction roots, I guess, stop him.

Interestingly, House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) has issued his own statement comparing the Apollo mission with our climate and clean energy challenge:

The first landing on the Moon crystallized, for all humanity, what we can do when we apply our genius, enterprise, and the spirit of exploration to extraordinary goals. Forty years ago today, America both inspired the world and made clear that she was the world’s leader in science, technology, and advanced industry when Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon.

In the midst of war abroad and turmoil at home, it was one of this Nation’s proudest moments.

We have an opportunity today to reassert America’s leadership by undertaking a mission every bit as important as sending astronauts to the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.  As with the space program, this new mission will revitalize our economy, create jobs, and spur research, development, and innovation.

Today’s challenge is to restructure our energy profile to finally become significantly less dependent on imported oil, thereby promoting our national security; to tap new, clean renewable energy sources and become much more energy efficient in our homes, businesses and factories, all of which will drive massive investment and jobs growth; and to meet the very real and dangerous threat posed by global warming pollution.

In 1969, the landing on the moon was the culmination of the space race with the Soviet Union.  Once again, to meet today’s challenges, we are on the brink of a revolution in science and technology – this time focused on the imperative of a clean energy future.  Today, we are engaged in a clean energy technology race with other countries.  Today, it is South Korea which supplies most of the batteries for our electric cars.  China is building 6 wind farms of 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts each, has raised its 2020 target for solar power to 20 gigawatts, and is committed to spending more than $30 billion for construction of renewable and other clean energy technology projects.  This is a race for leadership of the prime growth industry of the 21st century – and we cannot afford to run second.  The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) of 2009  provides $190 billion in investment in new clean energy technologies and energy efficiency, clean coal technology, electric and other advanced technology vehicles, and basic scientific R&D. ACES will power our renewed leadership in clean energy.

Thanks to President Obama’s leadership, we in the House of Representatives have already taken the first firm steps on the landscape of energy independence for America and fighting global warming by our support of The American Clean Energy and Security Act.

When President Kennedy, in 1961, challenged the country to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade, that goal seemed difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  But Congress and the American people rose to the challenge, and made the impossible, real.  It took leadership, unrelenting focus, ingenuity, some minor scientific miracles, and billions of dollars, but we were willing to work and sacrifice to succeed to ensure a better future.

Consistent with the spirit that lifted Apollo 11 to the Moon, American expertise, innovation, and commitment will once again triumph.  Just as we did 40 years ago, America must be the one to lead the world.  I am convinced we will come together in the Congress this year to enact comprehensive clean energy legislation that will enable us to, once again, accomplish what once seemed impossible – for the betterment of our country, our people, our environment, and our future.

In my Salon piece, I have my own spin on the similarity and difference between the two missions – Apollo and decarbonization.

The Apollo program was a major science and engineering effort to develop and, most important, deploy a variety of technologies to achieve a very difficult mission – like climate action. But the comparison between the two only goes so far.  Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

The hard goal of solving climate change is about more than winning a competition. Kennedy explained that the space effort “has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of
thousands of new jobs.” But those new jobs were only as sustainable as the manned space program, whose benefits and interest to the public were limited and waning. The transition to a sustainable economy, on the other hand, will be bring great and increasing benefits to the public, ultimately generating millions of jobs.

Kennedy asserted: “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid.” That is most certainly true of the mission to save a livable climate. Yet for all its magnificent majesty, Apollo was a relatively small-scale government program with little direct connection to the U.S. economy. It pales in comparison to the urgent task of replacing the nation’s and world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system with low carbon sources.

In 2002 dollars, the entire Apollo program cost $185 billion over 10 years – an increase of $128 billion over the existing space budget. The stimulus bill passed by Congress this year increased short-term funding for the development and deployment of clean energy technology by $90 billion. While that is projected to sharply increase the market share of clean energy over the next several years, the public and private sector of this country alone will need an Apollo-level effort every year for the next few decades to avert climate catastrophe.

Fortunately, clean energy technologies have many other benefits, including reducing air pollution, cutting oil imports and saving Americans tens of billions of dollars in energy costs. So the net impact on the economy of even aggressive climate action like the recent climate bill approved by the House has a net cost to U.S. households of about a postage stamp a day, according to the Congressional Budget Office (see “CBO stunner: Waxman-Markey cuts U.S. GHGs sharply but costs only a postage stamp a day – without counting the efficiency savings“).

While technologically bold, the Apollo moon missions were, ultimately, a government program that Americans could gaze at and wonder from afar. The grander technological challenge today is a national effort that every American must participate in.

Kennedy said we had to go to space because “our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men.”

More than ever we need to employ our leadership in science and industry to solve the mysteries of peace and security for the good of all women and men. But not by returning to space. Our top planetary mission for the foreseeable future must be to stop destroying the one climate hospitable to the one civilization that we know of in the entire galaxy.