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.
It's important to understand that landing a man on the moon (or developing atomic weaponry as in the Manhattan Project -- another example used by proponents of a new federal energy program) was a technological achievement. Achieving "energy independence," or ending the use of fossil fuels, are economic ones. And the former is not necessarily even a desirable goal, if by that one means only getting energy from domestic sources. Energy is, and should remain, part of the global economy and trade system if we want to continue to keep prices as low as possible and continue to provide economic growth.
In hindsight, if the goal of Apollo had been to open up the space frontier, rather than a crash program to send half a dozen astronauts to the lunar surface, it would have been better to state as a goal that we would establish an affordable and sustainable transportation infrastructure to and from the moon. As it happens, that was in fact what George W. Bush proposed four and a half years ago in the Vision for Space Exploration, but NASA apparently missed the memo. But that never was the goal of Apollo. The goal of Apollo was to simply prove that a democratic socialist state enterprise was technologically superior to a totalitarian one. Once we had beaten the Soviets to the moon, it was mission accomplished, and no need to go back. The remaining missions after Apollo XI were simply programmatic inertia, using up the hardware after the production was shut down in 1967, when it became clear that we were going to win.
The problem was that, as already noted, Apollo cost a lot of money. So much so that after landing only six crews, we flew the last mission thirty-six years ago, and shelved the technology that enabled us to achieve it, because it wasn't providing an economic return commensurate with the cost to the taxpayer. In fact, it spurred a new use of the phrase among frustrated space enthusiasts. Since 1972, they've been able to ask "If we can send a man to the moon, why can't we send a man to the moon?" The answer is that we couldn't afford to continue to do so, at least not the way we'd been doing it (which is a reason why NASA's plan to redo Apollo, pretty much the same way, will likely not be sustainable, either). To use Apollo as a model for the provision of our most vital commodity -- energy -- would be economically ruinous.
But if the goal is to build an affordable in-space transportation infrastructure, again, like the energy problem, that is an economic problem, not a purely technological one, and simply throwing money at it, Apollo style, won't necessarily get the job done. In both cases, the goal will require not a massive centralized federal technology effort, but policies that free up the market, and allow the technologies to be properly deployed as they are developed. We don't need technocrats (and particularly we don't need divinity school dropouts and "D" science students) picking energy technology winners and predetermining the outcome of the research. For either space transportation or energy production, the focus should be on the goal, not the means to achieve it.
Which is why John McCain's idea of a prize for more efficient electric car batteries is a good step in the right direction. I would argue, though, that it is still too specific. Better to simply offer a prize for cost-effective electric car with good performance and long range between charges, rather than specifying that batteries be the storage medium. On the other hand, it can be argued that at current gas prices, there's already an abundance of market demand for such a thing, and that the prize is redundant.
What we really need is not another Apollo, but to let the market work, and not distort it with political pork like ethanol tariffs and subsidies, and drilling bans. At current oil prices, there are a lot of incentives to find alternatives, and this is already happening about as quickly as it can be reasonably expected to. There's an old saying that you can't get a baby in a month by putting nine women on the job, but that's essentially what proponents of an Apollo program for energy are proposing.
Here's my plea. If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we get people to stop making bad analogies with putting a man on the moon?