“The moon-shot technology we need is political will". Can we make climate breakdown as big a challenge as Apollo?

Earth as seen from the Apollo 11 lunar mission in July 1969. NASA/Reuters

Earth as seen from the Apollo 11 lunar mission in July 1969. NASA/Reuters

Much coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface this week. But we liked this New York Times piece on whether the idea of a “moon-shot” is a strong enough idea to mobilise many sectors, around the 10-year challenge of getting our systems to zero-carbon.

An excerpt:

Could a “moon shot” for climate change cool a warming planet?

Fifty years after humans first left bootprints in the lunar dust, it’s an enticing idea. The effort and the commitment of brainpower and money, and the glorious achievement itself, shine as an international example of what people can do when they set their minds to it. The spinoff technologies ended up affecting all of our lives.

So why not do it all over again — but instead of going to another astronomical body and planting a flag, why not save our own planet? Why not face it with the kind of inspiration that John F. Kennedy projected when he stood up at Rice University in 1962 and said “We choose to go to the moon,” and to do such 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 we intend to win …”

But President Kennedy did not have to convince people that the moon existed. In our current political climate, the clear evidence that humans have generated greenhouse gases that are having a powerful effect on climate, and will have a greater effect into the future, has not moved the federal government to act with vigor. And a determined faction even argues that climate change is a hoax, as President Donald Trump has falsely stated at various times

And the moon shot had a clearly defined goal: Land on the moon. A finish line for fighting climate change is less clear. Back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? (We have already passed 412 parts per million.)

Still, it should come as no surprise that Kennedy’s stirring words and accomplishments have made the idea of a moon shot one of the most enduring metaphors for our time.

Roger Launius, a retired NASA chief historian and author of a new book, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” said that “moon shot” has become shorthand for “a big push,” and it’s almost become a trope: ‘We need a ‘project Apollo for name-the-big-thing-of-your-choice’.”

Climate change is certainly an urgent challenge. Rising levels of greenhouse gases are raising temperatures worldwide, leading to shifting weather patterns that are only expected to get worse, with increased flooding and heat waves, and drought and wildfires afflicting millions. The task of reversing that accumulation of greenhouse gases is vast, and progress is painfully slow.

The idea of a moon shot for climate has been gaining supporters [in the US]. Beto O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand use the idea in their presidential campaigns, as did Michael Bloomberg in unveiling his recently announced $500 million Beyond Carbon campaign

In a commencement speech this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he said, “It is time for all of us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time.” He concluded, “It may be a moon shot — but it’s the only shot we’ve got.”

Does the enduring metaphor fit the task of countering the grinding destructiveness of a warming planet?

More here - including the quote at the head of this post. (Also, from two years ago, read this piece from Laurie Macfarlane, on the “moon-shot” as a template for a structural response to the climate crisis).

In Wired magazine, Alex Davies resists the metaphor. We should think of moon booms, innovations stretching across many systems, rather than linear moon shots:

Today’s projects shouldn’t be called moon shots, not because they fail to meet the definition, but because they exceed it. Cancer, climate, cars, they demand more than a single mission accomplished. They demand more expansive and careful thinking, and follow-through. The places where, arguably, the real moon shot fell short.


In the 1960s, plenty of people grumbled about the cost of leaving Earth, but many more found inspiration in the race to shed humanity’s earthly shackles. The popular imagi­nation conjured life on the moon and other planets, the conquest of the solar system launching a new age of explo­ration. But after July 20, 1969, the US went back to the moon a few times (once to play a round of golf), and that was pretty much it.

After meeting JFK’s goal, NASA shuttered the Apollo program early and Richard Nixon slashed the agency’s budget and aspirations. The US helped build the International Space Station and ran the troubled Shuttle program, but anyone who had hoped for a colony on the moon had to settle for a flag that would soon turn white and then to dust.

“The Apollo program did little to directly advance scientific understanding,” Haigh wrote in his essay, arguing that NASA chose “to meet arbitrary deadlines by rushing special-purpose hardware, rather than maximizing the scientific value of the missions.”

Others have made the same point. At stake for the US was more than making good on a lost leader’s promise. The Space Race was just one more front in the Cold War. As each superpower worked to win various “third world” countries to its side, a moon landing would be a powerful argument in either’s favor, says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s space history department.

Once the US had checked the box and reaped the political rewards, it saw no need to keep running.

Today’s great challenges don’t have such clear-cut finish lines. Curing cancer, stopping climate change, eliminating human driving—these are too broad to be moon shots. They require ecosystems of innovation.

In the decade since Google first displayed its self-driving car, an entire industry has emerged to help make it a viable commercial product, and thus a world-changing one. Fleet operators and lidar makers are hawking their wares. Lobbyists, lawyers, and insurers are studying up. Universities, established and newfangled, are pumping out engineers. Some will perish; contractions always follow explosions. But while a shot is limited by one direction and destination, a detonation has the helpful habit of going everywhere at once.

Leave moon shots to the astronauts of old. We want enduring, expansive victories. We need moon booms.

More here. Nevertheless, please enjoy this moving, charming video from Google, with a commentary from Micheal Collins (who guided the orbiting craft that sent the astronauts to the Moon’s surface, and received them back, to make the return journey to Earth).