Friday 30 August 2019

I have recently read many of the Apollo 11 50th anniversary related books and some of them even had new information I didn’t know even after spending my whole life studying the Apollo programme. That is one of the good things about Apollo, it was so big, there are always new stories to read.  However, I digress.  I was once again struck by the eloquence of John F. Kennedy’s two oft quoted speeches on space; the address to Congress on 25 May 1961 and the “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University on 12 September 1962, and how they could form the basis of a speech that a hypothetical future US president (or other national leader) could use to address climate change. 

Some examples from the address to Congress:

“These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge.”

“No role in history could be more difficult or more important.” 

“There is no single simple policy which meets this challenge. Experience has taught us that no one nation has the power or the wisdom to solve all the problems of the world or manage its revolutionary tides — that extending our commitments does not always increase our security — that any initiative carries with it the risk of a temporary defeat — that nuclear weapons cannot prevent subversion — that no free people can be kept free without will and energy of their own — and that no two nations or situations are exactly alike.

Yet there is much we can do and must do. The proposals I bring before you are numerous and varied. They arise from the host of special opportunities and dangers which have become increasingly clear in recent months. Taken together, I believe that they can mark another step forward in our effort as a people. I am here to ask the help of this Congress and the nation in approving these necessary measures.”

“All that I have said makes it clear that we are engaged in a world-wide struggle”

“I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.”

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

 “A second real asset is that we are not alone. We have friends and allies all over the world who share our devotion to freedom.”

And from the Rice University speech:

“William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“We choose to go to the moon. 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, and the others, too.”

It is easy to see how these phrases could be co-opted to cover climate change, even if that can only be a dream itself until the current Administration is consigned to history and the better sides of America become dominant again.

The other phrase that always comes up in discussing Apollo is “if we can land a man on the moon why can’t we…….. (complete with your preferred problem)”.  The phrase, the first recorded use of which apparently was in 1962 even before the US had flown John Glenn into orbit, is still in use.  In my last blog I did hint at the inspiration Apollo could provide to solving climate change.  Although I have never thought a single centrally led programme was the right approach there is a need for inspired leadership as shown by JFK.  Political and corporate leadership is still needed, even though we have entered the age when many of the solutions such as renewable energy are actually economic compared to the incumbent technologies and so markets will drive change.  We need leadership to drive rapid change.

In one of the best 50th anniversary books, “One Giant Leap”, Charles Fishman addresses how Apollo changed the world.  He specifically writes about what lessons Apollo has for dealing with complex social and economic problems such as homelessness, environmental problems or even climate change, an important topic for debate as back in the 1960s and 70s NASA’s programme management approach was once seen as a solution to these kinds of problems.  He says something that I think is true:

“If we want to tackle climate change, we can. It can’t be solved with “a moonshot,” in the sense that Apollo was solved with a series of brilliant technical, engineering, and management efforts.  But it can be solved with a moonshot in the sense of rallying Americans” (and I would add people in all countries) “to a purpose, to a mission, to something that takes incredible effort. With leadership and clarity of purpose. We just need to be asked”.

The Blue Marble (Apollo 17)


There is 1 comment on “If we can land a man on the moon…”:

  • Patrick McCool on August 30th, 2019 at 3:26 pm said:

    Thank you for this excellent, timely and inspiring piece.
    A great piece of research and reflection.

Dr Steven Fawkes

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