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The Apollo Analogy

July 20th, 2009 · 4 Comments

40 years ago, today, Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It had been just over eight years earlier when a young President John F Kennedy walked into the House of Representatives and made the call to go to the moon.

We choose not 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.

In just eight years, from science fiction to reality.  In just eight years, the creation of massive new industries, new government organizations, an entire new career aspiration for millions of Americans (Astronaut).  A government program (a highly successful program from before the drive to drown the bathtub) sparked by the vision of a brilliant, eloquent, and forceful young President. A government program that, in a myriad of ways, changed the very nature of our society, changed humanity’s conception of Earth, changed our economy, and sparked innovations both directly to support the program and indirectly from inspiring millions to look beyond themselves and to think beyond their previous constraints toward something new, something greater.

When it comes to the challenges before us (the US and the globe), the Apollo analogy is a powerful one — the idea of a President setting an objective and a massive endeavor being put together to achieve something many thought impossible on an, well, impossible timeline. To take the United States from what seemed to be a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, to ‘win’ the space race. Many concerned about America’s economic challenges, our energy problems, and the looming catastrophes of global warming look to the Apollo Program for inspiration. From the eloquent power of Apollo’s Fire to the strong organizational power of The Apollo Alliance, there is an intense power to the appeal to the greatness of The Apollo Program’s quite tangible achievements as a model for tackling the very serious challenges before us (both the U.S. and all of us).

We must, however, apply some of the critical lessons of Thinking in Time, most critically understanding the parallels and disconnects between the analogy and the situation that we face today. The analogy of a Presidential call, of putting together a massive technological undertaking that created entire new technologies in achieving a vision, and so on … all of these do have powerful appeal.

But, there are quite serious disconnects that we cannot fail to examine and understand:

  • Despite the size and national appeal of The Apollo Program, it was not something that changed the daily lives of the average American nor did it require massive international agreements and cooperation  to be achieved. Like the Manhattan Project (another common analogy, appeal), this was achieved by scientists and engineers (mainly) who worked, to a huge extent, in isolation from the greater society.
    • Tackling the challenges of climate change and taking advantage of the opportunities of a new energy (green) economy will involve every American.
  • RE the scientists and engineers, The Apollo Program was principally a scientific and engineering challenge. There were other obstacles (that $200 billion in funding, for example) and clearly other impacts (sparking a wave of new engineers in American universities and sparking new businesses with an impact that continues to this day), but this was a scientific/engineering problem, not a social organization and economic structure challenge.
    • Dealing with Global Warming will require rethinking and engagement across essentially every aspect of modern human civilization. It is not simply a technological but also a social, economic, and cultural challenge before us.
  • While there were many who questioned The Apollo Program and whether this was the best use of limited resources, there was not a powerful mafia seeking to derail the US government’s vision. The space program had ‘bipartisan’ support and was seen in the context of a bipartisan agreement as to threat.
  • The Apollo Program had an inspirational goal and the space program ended up with massive impacts on human society (Tang for breakfast, anyone?), but let’s us face facts: if The Apollo Program had failed, if it had not sent someone to the moon, how many millions of people would have died, how many species would have gone extinct.
    • The stakes are high with Global Warming. We aren’t talking about the lives of a few (brave) astronauts at the top of a rocket, in space alone with no hope of succur, but about billions hurtling through space on ‘Spaceship Earth’ which is having some serious contamination going on in its life-support systems.
  • The Apollo program had a finite, tangible, measurable target: putting Neil Armstrong on the moon to utter his famous words. Anything short of that was failure. Anything after that was icing on the cake.
  • There will be no clear-cut “done” for the challenge of turning the tide on Global Warming’s rising seas (at least not in the lifetime of anyone alive today or their children or grandchildren). We will have serious problems in the years ahead, with the lingering impacts of the CO2 already emitted — even if we magically stopped all human CO2 emissions tomorrow. Sadly, there are many paths to failure — it is hard to see the icing on the cake (even if there is the potential for many victories, such as bringing a clean energy boom to the U.S. economy.)

To think thoughtfully in time means to be able to weave together multiple analogies, understanding the weaknesses and strengths of each, understanding how the different perspectives and messages of the different analogies can help us understand where we are, where we might go, and how we might get there.

The Apollo Analogy tells us that we (the United States and, well, perhaps humanity) can organize to achieve something greater than ourselves.

The Apollo Analogy tells us that we can surprise ourselves by the rapidity and extent of change, if we set ourselves to it.

The Apollo Analogy tells us that stretch targets, objectives that seem next-to-impossible can lead us to do better than imagined.

As for the last, the power of serious targets, this tells me that it is time to be taking seriously Al Gore’s target of 100% clean electricity within a decade. This is a “stretch target”. It is time to be taking seriously and the need to chart a path not to simply slow emissions, but to chart and navigate a path toward actually reducing atmospheric Co2 concentrations. It is time for a brilliant, eloquent, and forceful young President to take a vision of something better to the American people rather than to accept inadequate compromises that are the best the political system can deliver.

The Apollo Analogy tells of the power of vision … and calls to meet it.

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Tags: climate change · Global Warming

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 What Can the US do in 10 Years? « It’s Getting Hot In Here // Jul 21, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    […] our economy, create jobs, and spur research, development, and innovation.” Or check out A Siegel of Get Energy Smart Now: When it comes to the challenges before us (the US and the globe), the Apollo analogy is a powerful […]

  • 2 Truth Hurts // Jul 22, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Yes, the Apollo analogy demonstrates clearly that we can do it if we believe in it. For that matter, the more recent example of the ‘economic stimulus’ shows the same. “Banking system collapsing? Here’s a trillion dollars we just pulled out of nowhere. You’re welcome.”

    Yes, governments and corporations could very easily do it, if they believed.

  • 3 What Can the US Do in 10 Years? | // Jul 22, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    […] our economy, create jobs, and spur research, development, and innovation.” Or check out A Siegel of Get Energy Smart Now: When it comes to the challenges before us (the US and the globe), the Apollo analogy is a powerful […]

  • 4 What Can the US Do in 10 Years? | Eco Friendly Mag // Aug 18, 2009 at 4:52 am

    […] our economy, create jobs, and spur research, development, and innovation.” Or check out A Siegel of Get Energy Smart Now: When it comes to the challenges before us (the US and the globe), the Apollo analogy is a powerful […]