Forty years ago, like millions of other children, I was awestruck by Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. No doubt the optimistic vision of space travel from the Apollo program, and "Star Trek," were key reasons I became a physicist.
But incredibly expensive efforts like a manned space program can be sustained only by a very rich country that doesn't have desperate Earth-based missions for its scientific and engineering talent -- and for the tens of billions of dollars such a program requires. You can reach for the stars, but only when you have everything else you need firmly in your grasp.
In 2004, President Bush announced his plan for sending humans back to the moon and eventually Mars. Last week, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, proposed a manned mission to "Mars by the 60th anniversary year of our Apollo 11 flight," in part to study geologic-time-scale climate change on the red planet. Long before then, however, our struggle to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change here on Earth will overwhelm even a modest effort to put humans beyond planetary orbit again.
I was too young to be directly inspired by 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. Many of Kennedy's words are as true today as they were a half-century ago:
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.
He saw the space race through the lens of American exceptionalism -- no "nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space" -- but he predicted benefits for all humankind:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.
President Obama made the same kind of plea the day before the House of Representatives was to vote on the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill:
We have seen our reliance on fossil fuels jeopardize our national security. We have seen it pollute the air we breathe and endanger our planet. And most of all, we have seen other countries realize a critical truth: the nation that leads in the creation of a clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy.
Ironically, Obama's new mission to save planet Earth is the only hope of preserving the moral leadership of this country that Kennedy took for granted.
Imagine the next 50 generations suffering from global warming of 10°F, sea levels rising 1 or 2 inches a year, dust bowls over one-third of the habited land, loss of more than half the species and oceans turned into hot, acidic dead zones. That is now what the science says we risk if we simply keep doing what we've been doing -- if the richest country in the world, the one responsible for the most cumulative emissions, refuses to devote a small fraction of its wealth and scientific talent to preventing this disaster. I think it's safe to say that nobody will be writing any books about us called "The Greatest Generation."
Kennedy ended his speech with an appeal to the universal human spirit to conquer the unknown:
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
Today, we know that the most hazardous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked is the transition to a carbon-free economic and energy system that's capable of sustaining and expanding prosperity for 9 billion people. The alternative is, as a new 6,700-page report by world leaders concludes, catastrophic climate changes whereby "billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilization will collapse."
At the same time Kennedy warned that science and technology "has no conscience of its own," he related the accelerating rate of technological change: "This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old -- new ignorance, new problems, new dangers."
He could have been talking about the accumulation of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is also occurring at a breathtaking pace -– 10,000 times faster than it ever had in nature over the past 800,000 years. We transformed the global economy with fossil fuels in a century, creating new ills, new dangers that we are only now beginning to understand.
Humanity has only two paths forward. We voluntarily switch to a low-carbon economy over the next two decades, or the reality of catastrophic climate change and peak oil forces us to desperately start doing so by the end of the 2020s. The only difference between the two paths is that the first one spares our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, untold misery. It creates a sustainable future where activities like manned space travel can be contemplated again.
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.
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.