When faced with adversity, or just extreme challenges, humanity is capable of doing remarkable things, and has repeatedly done so. People collaborate, innovate and, crucially, find the money to pay for whatever is needed, often in impossibly short time frames. This happened before and during World War II, and was seen notably in the Apollo space programme, leading to the 1969 lunar landing, with its 50th anniversary on 20th July, 2019.
On May 25th 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the intention of placing an American on the moon and outlined the enormous human efforts and expenditures that would be needed. Fuelled by the threat of Soviet technological superiority in the Cold War and the humiliation of being beaten by the USSR in the race to orbit the earth with a manned spacecraft, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) brought together a concentration of scientists to work collaboratively in new ways on an apparently impossible project. As a result, Kennedy’s astonishing goal was achieved just over eight years later on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module’s ladder and onto the Moon’s surface. An estimated 650 million people watched him on television. Imagine what could be achieved if such resources were focused single-mindedly on climate change.
In his speech to the public describing the ambition for a lunar landing, Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Relevantly, among the range of benefits that spun-off from the Apollo space project, many are used today in tackling climate change or its effects. NASA pioneered photovoltaic power systems for application in space, where no conventional energy sources existed. Now, solar energy has on certain days overtaken fossil fuels as the main source of energy for human life on earth. A series of satellites were launched in 1972 by NASA to observe the changing conditions of the earth’s surface. The ability to monitor changes to the earth for a long period of time provides invaluable information that can help with preserving wildlife, monitoring air and water pollution, mapping the growth of cities, flood control and deforestation by detecting the radiation reflected and emitted from trees.
Other co-benefits from the space program that gave wider social value include: home insulation materials, smoke detectors, environmental control sensors, oil spill mop-up technologies, energy saving air conditioning, air purification, sewage treatment, pollution control and measuring devices, a whale identification method, and an earthquake prediction system.
One major impact that has perhaps only been appreciated in recent years is the huge effect of the beautiful ‘blue marble’ picture of the Earth taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon, which became known as ‘Earthrise’. This has become one of the most reproduced images in history, taken on the last manned trip to the moon, and is the only full shot of the earth (not in shadow) taken by a human. The Blue Marble was not the first clear image taken of an illuminated face of Earth, since similar shots from a satellite had already been made as early as 1967. The Apollo 17 image, however, was released during a surge in environmental activism in the 1970s, and became both a symbol of, and inspiration for the environmental movement, as a depiction of Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. It is still used today for global events such as Earth Day celebrations.
This phenomenon, when huge resources and energy are mounted behind a focused aim, is described by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, director of University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose as “mission oriented” policy. She believes this lay behind some of the biggest innovative leaps forward of the last century and can offer the transformative approach needed today to deal with climate change. It is also vital to recognise that the role of government is essential, particularly in the funding of development banks that can support longer-term innovations for “public good” that private finance shy away from. Many technologies thought popularly to be private sector miracles were in fact born as a result of intensive publicly funded collaborations, including every technology that makes the iPhone so ‘smart’ – the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays and the voice-activated Siri system.
Although countries have come together globally to set carbon reduction targets in the Paris Agreement and to set aims such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, most countries are still making independent national decisions about what are global issues. Mazzucato believes that finding solutions to global challenges requires that purposeful organisations collaborate in fundamentally new ways across the state, businesses and civil society. A mission-oriented approach can – and should – be used to set inspirational goals, with dynamic tools—from procurement to prize schemes—to nurture bottom up experimentation and exploration across different sectors.
Government policy at national level is usually split into fields such as energy, food production, biodiversity or transport, which makes tackling climate change in a coherent way more difficult. One fundamental difference between government approaches today and the example of the US lunar mission is the willingness to take a risk, and the broad expectation of support from the public. Kennedy asked for trust and enthusiasm, appealing to Americans’ sense of themselves as pioneering, entrepreneurial and capable of supporting actions for the greater good. Although the outcomes were unknown and involved several huge leaps of faith, the US government took the risks required and the public were largely supportive. In 1961, NASA had absolutely no idea how to put a man on the Moon. In fact, they couldn’t even begin to imagine the scope of such an endeavour, as evidenced by their ever-changing budget. Their first estimate of seven billion dollars was quickly changed to $20 billion and finally reached a grand total of $25.4 billion in 1973. Yet they did it – and within the ambitious timetable set.
Some governments have been better than others at investing in green technologies, with China, Germany and Denmark leading the way. In 2012, the German bank KfW was the top development bank in terms of clean energy investments, with its total commitments amounting to US$34 billion. In China, investments by the China Development Bank (CDB) are a key source of its success in solar power, which has driven down the cost of solar panels to a level where solar energy is often the cheapest source and it is now supplying to its own enormous domestic market. Between 2007 and 2012, CDB committed US$78 billion to clean energy, US$26 billion in 2012 alone. In contrast, the total of private equity, venture capital, and infrastructure funds provided just US$1 billion for climate change mitigation/adaptation projects in 2012, much less than State development banks (US$123 billion) and even other governmental agencies (US$12 billion). As Mazzucato says: “Courage is China’s attempt to build a US and European electric grid–sized market for wind turbines by 2050 and to increase its solar PV market by 700 per cent in just three years.
Most of these changes came about in the face of a threat or perceived threat. Kennedy had come to power partly on the promise of building the space programme and only twenty days before his speech, NASA had successfully launched Alan Shepard into space – the first US man to reach space. But the Soviet Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth more than a month earlier, surprising the Americans and raising the stakes significantly. Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon by the end of the decade was taken partly in response to this and because it was seen as far enough in the future that it was possible for the US to achieve.
What is often forgotten is that Kennedy suggested collaborating with the USSR on the space program in 1963. Relations with the Soviet Union had improved measurably after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had been settled peacefully. A “hotline” was established between Washington and Moscow to help avoid conflict and misunderstandings. A treaty banning the open air testing of nuclear weapons had been signed in 1963. On the other hand, the cost of the lunar space program was mounting fast. In the midst of all of this, Kennedy, in a speech at the United Nations, proposed that the USSR and the US cooperate in mounting a mission to the moon. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko applauded Kennedy’s speech and called it a “good sign,” but refused to comment on the proposal for a joint trip to the moon. In Washington, there was a good bit of surprise–and some skepticism–about Kennedy’s proposal. But, with the soaring price tag for the lunar mission, perhaps a joint effort with the Soviets was the only way to save the costly program. Just two months later, Kennedy was assassinated and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, abandoned the idea of cooperating with the Soviets but pushed ahead with the lunar program.
Gathering all the top experts – mostly scientists – in one place, spurred by a single purpose and with the resources to experiment without commercial restraints, perhaps unsurprisingly, resulted in a remarkable leap forward in technology. The US space program was based initially at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, before moving to Houston in 1962, where a larger, purpose built Manned Spacecraft Centre (MSC) was completed by 1965. Political and financial support was firmly behind the project, which in 1966-67 absorbed almost 5% of US GDP and involved an estimated 400,000 people. The project was collaborative throughout: the single “moonship” they built for the Apollo missions was effectively six individual spacecraft designed and built by five different companies.
The mission to send someone to the moon focused on themes rather than traditional industry sectors: for example, it was vital to reduce the weight of everything that the rocket had to propel into space, so new lightweight materials and miniaturisation was a top goal. Getting mass into space is expensive: it costs about $10,000 a pound to get to lower Earth orbit. Computers needed to be very powerful and very light, but able to function on a small amount of energy. This led to the development of the integrated circuit, where all the components are on a chip rather than a board with individual transistors and other circuit components fixed onto it. The microchip has since revolutionised the high-tech industry and famously given us more computing power in the phone in our pocket than there was in the lunar landing module.
Lowering our energy use, decarbonising energy and reducing our material footprint, our consumption of resources, are the critical challenges in halting climate breakdown. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to believe that with the same level of urgency and commitment today, to achieve these aims could be placed on a special footing, with budgets and collaborative teams to match.