Energy Independence: Shooting for the Moon

Sunday, July 20, is the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first manned lunar landing.

At the time, it was considered a wondrous achievement. So much so, in fact, that a new phrase arose. "If we can put a man on the moon..." If we can do that, why can't we cure cancer, end world hunger, achieve world peace, give everyone a pony?

Now comes a new call from former vice president Al Gore, for another Apollo program, this time to achieve "energy independence" and save the planet. It is thought by many that this, like landing a man on the moon, is a technological challenge that we can conquer if we simply establish a huge federal program, or even reassign NASA, to do so.

And even John McCain has gotten into the act:

On the screen, there is a matrix of images: an early satellite, a Saturn 5 lifting off, an astronaut on the surface of the Moon. Was a major presidential candidate really talking about space in a campaign ad?

Well, not exactly. "John McCain will call America to our next national purpose: energy security," the narrator continued. The imagery on the screen changed: the rocket and astronaut were replaced by a gas pump, oil well, and windmills as the narrator talked about McCain's plan to reduce gas prices, increase domestic oil production, and promote alternative energy sources. Energy quite literally pushed space out of the picture.

So did Barack Obama, in his predictable response to McCain's call for an auto battery prize:

Explaining that "when John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win," Obama believes that to speed alternative fuel development and increase fuel-efficiency, the full power of the government must be combined with the "ingenuity and innovation of the American people."

Well, of course he does. He's never met a problem that, in his mind, the "full power of the government" can't solve.

It's an understandable appeal, but it betrays a certain lack of understanding of the problem to think that we will solve it with a crash federal program, at least if it's one modeled on Apollo.

Putting a man on the moon was a remarkable achievement, but it was a straightforward well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it, which is exactly how it was done. At its height, the Apollo program consumed four percent of the federal budget (NASA is currently much less than one percent, and has been for many years). Considering how much larger the federal budget is today, with the addition and growth of many federal programs over the past forty years makes the amount of money spent on the endeavor even more remarkable.

But most of the other problems for which people have pled for a solution, using Apollo as an example, were, and are, less amenable to being solved by a massive public expenditure. We may in fact cure cancer, and have made great strides over the past four decades in doing so, but it's a different kind of problem, involving science and research on the most complex machine ever built -- the human body. It isn't a problem for which one can simply set a goal and time table and put the engineers to work on it, as Apollo was. Similarly, ending world hunger and achieving world peace are socio-political problems, not technological ones (though technology has made great strides in improving food production, which makes the problem easier to solve for governments that are competent and not corrupt). So most of the uses of the phrase never really made much sense, often being non sequiturs.