Why "But We Walked On the Moon!" Doesn't Mean What They Think It Does


If you have followed energy issues from anywhere other than a cave on a mountain peak, you've probably heard technoutopians utter some variation on the following sentence two or three hundred times "We walked on the moon - of course we can do whatever it takes to shift from fossil fuels to some other source of energy." The moon shot is perceived as the ultimate example of "put in a quarter and get out the technological outcome you want" in our history. If we could set out to put a man on the moon and do it in less than decade, can't we do anything we want to, with just enough ingenuity?

Because I am married to The Astrophysicist (more often known as Eric when I am playing him for comic relief ;-)) who among other things teaches the history of space exploration, the moon shot comes up more than perhaps in most marriages. Over the years we've both been struck by the disparity between how people view the moon shot (as proof that anything technically feasible can be promptly enacted) and how the actual history of our space program and the moon shot actually teach very different lessons - lessons equally relevant to our energy future, but not nearly as palatable. In this essay I am joined by the Astrophysicist as a collaborator.

Let's take the perceived lessons of the moon shot and subsequent space program as they are perceived, and then as they actually are, distinguishing myth from reality.

Myth : We walked on the moon - that means all we have to do is see a need for a new technology and turn good old American ingenuity towards it, and it will be accomplished. Thus, no need to worry about the transition away from fossil fuels.

Reality: It is tempting to retroactively write a story in which a united society saw the need to win the race to the moon and worked in unity to achieve it. In fact, however, it is a story about political manipulation and technical limits as much as achievement. The space race was a comparatively unimportant part of the conflict between the US and Soviet Union in a military or economic sense - but one with enormous political importance - a huge and expensive publicity stunt.

The perception that we were losing the space race and that the space race was of great geopolitical importance to Kennedy, reeling from various other disasters. Kennedy saw a political opportunity to emphasize the importance of the space race and manipulate events so that America could "win" a particular victory.

In fact, the history of the moon shot is mostly about the implicit acknowledgement of technological limits. We know for a fact that Kennedy and his scientific advisors considered a number of space related projects, including the building of a space-station (more on that later) to give Americans the necessary victory that would distract from a whole host of more important political issues. The reason the moon shot was chosen was not because we wanted so desperately to make "one giant step for mankind" - we imputed that significance later - but because it was virtually the only space-related project that we were fairly certain we could "win" at, because the Soviets weren't yet focused on it. Various other space projects were considered and abandoned as technically possible but not likely to win - Kennedy evaluated that the Soviets recovery from World War II would delay a moon landing long enough for an American "victory.". After considerable analysis, the moon shot was selected as both politically appealing and within our extant technical capacities. We had the technology.

Going to the moon was impressive, but it wasn't a case of taking an extant need, determining to fill it, and doing so rapidly and in response that need. Instead, it was about creating a need and moving a sideshow (the space race) to the center of things (this is, of course, normative in politics and always has been). It was an important sideshow for any number of historical reasons but not in any way parallel to facing a national crisis and engendering a technological response that prevents disaster. Indeed, it involved us acknowledging, with the case of the space station, that time was inadequate to complete many desired projects.

Myth: We can do what we want, unencumbered by limits, and go on doing it, expanding to fill available needs.

Reality: These two myths go hand in hand with the re-writing of our space narrative as the turn towards a kind of national unity. The previous lesson points out that the moon shot isn't a good parallel to the need for a response to an energy crisis, because we didn't need to go to the moon. On the other hand, the time horizon does seem to be inspiring. Kennedy announced that we would get to the surface of the moon within a decade, and to nearly everyone's surprise, 8 years later, we did. That is an impressive technological achievement. It belies the fact that the moon shot didn't take us into a new space age where those technologies were widely implemented and impacted most people's daily lives - something that would be necessary in a even broadly parallel "energy race."

As the Astrophysicist puts it to his class, saying "isn't it great to live in the space age" is rather like saying in 1986 "Isn't it great you live in the internet age?" More than 50 years into the "space age" fewer than 500 human beings have even entered low earth orbit (which my husband correctly describes to his undergraduates in Albany NY as "about as far away as New Jersey") and only 24 have ever gone further. Manned space flight has remained an occasional sideshow, but has never generalized or spread, despite the claims that regular commercial space flight will happen any day now (for those of you with a few hundred thousand bucks to spare). The difference between the internet is that it actually came to have a regular impact on ordinary people - space never did.

Moreover, what isn't widely known but is important is that this decline in manned space flight was something that began immediately after the moon shot itself - Apollo 18, 19 and 20, all expansions of the moon program, were cancelled within months of the moon landing. Indeed, due to lack of general interest and problems in the Soviet Space program, there was some consideration of cancelling the moon landing itself. The public's passion for the space race had waned and new political priorities had taken their place - there was debate over whether the expense was justified, but since most of the 20 billion dollars had already been spent, it was seen as a go-ahead.

What we can see is that manned space flight and the race to the moon are not only bad parallels in many ways to the kind of radical societal transformation that would enable us to replace oil and other fossil fuels with renewable energy in an equitable and widespread way, but also that the moon landing and the subsequent manned space program were not, in fact cases of the successful and scalable achievement of a technological goal that could be further built upon, but instead, an example of hitting a demonstration high note that was barely reproduceable and never had a meaningful impact on most lives. That's not what's needed, obviously, in regards to energy.

Myth: The arrow of technological progress always points straight towards the bullseye.

Reality: Eric has a children's book from 1960 that sat on his shelf during his boyhood in the 1970s called _You Will Go to the Moon_. Besides the humorous pictures of a little boy who travels to the moon as one routinely did in this imagined future. What's interesting about it is that the boy makes his moon launch from a 2001-style rotating space station in orbit. This was the original vision of a moon launch, and the original imagined purpose of space stations - rather than taking incredible quantities of energy and resources to launch to the moon directly from the ground, which was clearly not feasible if scaled, moon launches would necessarily occur from orbit where you wouldn't need to fight gravity or atmosphere.

When JFK announced that we would shoot for the moon by the end of the decade he functionally put an end to this kind of moon launch model. By focusing on the quick and dirty from-the-ground launch using disposable rockets, he shifted attention away from building a space station that would make this act reproducable and enable further (ideally) deep space missions. In a way, the nail in the coffin to going into space regularly was the first shot to the moon.

Because all resources were focused on these kinds of expendable rocket surface launches, and indeed because a generation of space-related expectations were built upon witnessing these kinds of surface launches, no extra-atmospheric space station that could have launched further exploration was ever built. By the time of the moon shot, the political will and economic resources to build such a space station were gone.

Remember those cancelled Apollo missions? Well, Skylab, the only space station the US has ever launched independently, was built with repurposed pieces from those cancelled space missions. The goals and purpose of a space station in 1973 were also repurposed from old Apollo missions - ie, to stay competitive with the Russians whose space station (also not a platform to further exploration) was launched in 1971, and who were dominating the study of long term human presence in space,

To the extent that Skylab had any goals that furthered expansion of the space program, it was to see how people survived in space over the longer term. Before the launch of Skylab the longest any American had been in space was about 2 weeks, but during the year Skylab was in use, the longest stay there was 84 days, well below the Russian record at that point. So even as a possible research step towards more manned space flight or long term life support, space stations were faltering, and the US space station program failed to take us in that direction - or rather, took us in the direction we were actually already heading - towards the abandonment of manned space flight for the most part.

It is here, i think that the parallels between the Moon Shot and our current need to make an energy transition are clearest and most important. We picked, for the purpose of political distraction, a goal that actually took us away from being an effective presence in space - by focusing on something that looked impressive but didn't get us anywhere important and that we knew couldn't easily be generalized, we failed to hit the "bullseye" of an actual "space age" in which manned space flight was meaningfully integrated into our future.

Looking ahead 40 years from the last moon landing (which happened four months after Sharon was born) none of the nations with space programs that either involve manned space flight or ambitions to entry into that club are all floundering to decide what the actual point of manned space flight is. The moon shot in many ways was not the beginning of anything except the end of real progress in manned space flight. It marked, in many ways, the start of a decline. We can't afford to have that be true of a transition to renewable and other energy sources. In this sense, the message of the moon launch is very different than most people think.

At the end of his class on the history of space exploration, when discussion turns towards the future, Eric shows his class an image of abandoned Apollo-era launch platforms from the 1970s (not the one above, the other is from an old documentary and not available to us, but the image at the top will give you a general sense) that look like nothing so much as a modern Stonehenge, concrete trilithons with a patina of age and a clear air of decrepitude. It is this, perhaps that people should (but often won't) take away from the moon shot - not that it proves we can do anything we want, whenever we want, but that we must choose carefully our goals and recognize our limits more clearly than we have in our past.

Sharon Astyk and Eric Woods


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This was good...

I remember reading in a biography of Wernher Von Braun that one of the reasons the U.S. got a later start was that the team working on that was warned by Kennedy not to let anything "accidentally" go into orbit - for fear of how the Soviets would react.

By starskeptic (not verified) on 05 Jan 2012 #permalink

Comedian Brian Regan has a bit about another (perhaps more common) use of that phrase.

I've no arguments with the substance of your article, and do think a better appreciation of how Apollo came about would serve discussions about all scientific and technical problems (not to mention spaceflight advocacy) well.

I wonder if there was an editing error in saying, ``during the year Skylab was in use, the longest stay there was 84 days, well below the Russian record at that point'', however. I believe the longest Soviet crewed spaceflight up to Skylab's use, 1973-74, was the Soyuz 11 flight of just under 24 days, less than even the shortest, Skylab 2/1, mission. By the time Skylab reentered in 1979, Soviet duration records were much longer, and were beating their own earlier records.

I'd be curious to hear from Eric whether people under the age of 30 even think about the idea of manned space flight in any meaningful way. It seems so far off the radar screen by this point.

This is a really interesting and informative post -- thank you! I love learning about the hows and whys of the history behind celebrated events like this.

I'd like to add a major but very simple difference between the moon shot and an energy transition that you've only barely touched on. In addition to not requiring (or engendering) widespread deployment, the progress needed to achieve the moonshot was almost entirely in technological innovation and development. But most of the technological innovation and development needed for an energy transition has already happened. There's always room for improvement, of course, and there are some areas (such as energy storage and electrical grid management) that still need work. We have the major parts, though: we know how to make windmills and solar panels, we know that they work, and we know what technological problems to be looking out for.

So while the moon shot was a technological hurdle, the energy transition is mostly a deployment hurdle. They're completely different challenges. Technological hurdles are inspiring because they lead to exciting new technology. A deployment hurdle is less "attractive" because it requires more mundane solutions: manufacturing, economic adjustments, and political maneuverings, not to mention changes in people's everyday lives. It's tempting to compare the energy transition we need to the moon shot because the moon shot was so exciting and yet easy for the average American to support. But the challenges represented by the energy transition are much more like a war effort. When we want an analogy to inspire people about transitioning to renewable energy, WWII -- with its shifts in manufacturing, personal contributions by the public, response to an actual national need, and ultimate victory -- is a better one to make.

@starskeptic: It was the Eisenhower administration, not the Kennedy administration, that kept von Braun from attempting to orbit a satellite. Von Braun could well have put something into orbit by September 1956 if he'd been allowed to do so, more than a year ahead of when the Russians eventually did.

During the late 1960s, I happened to see, in two different sources, figures on how much we were spending per year on the space program and on picking up littler on highways. We were spending a little more on the highway clean up than on space travel.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 05 Jan 2012 #permalink

I think you've missed the mark. People say "we walked on the moon" precisely to support a position that if we put our minds and money to a task, we can do it. Notice they do not say "We launched a sustained and growing space program with ongoing benefits for all."

The end of Apollo came quickly after the first Moon landing precisely because the primary goal had been achieved. Kennedy did not commit to establishing a permanent human space presence by the end of the decade, after all.

I also have to take particular issue with your statement that the Apollo program was "an example of hitting a demonstration high note that was barely reproduceable and never had a meaningful impact on most lives." Countless young people who watched Armstrong take those first steps on an alien world were inspired to pursue science and technology educations (what we now call STEM). I do not think it is possible to fully quantify the enormous positive impact that Apollo 11 had on our technological progress. No meaningful impact, indeed.

Soviets didn't break Skylab's endurance record until 1978 on Salyut 6. That crew flew for 96 days, 12 above Skylab record.

By doug messier (not verified) on 05 Jan 2012 #permalink


It seems there might be a couple of valid parallels here, between walking on the moon and renewable energy.

The moon landing was achieved, but the real benefits were side-effects -- Tang freeze-dried breakfast drink and other food preservation techniques derived from the early space program needs, miniaturization of electronics formerly restricted to weapon missiles, including the microwave oven and the iPad.

John Michael Greer makes a compelling argument that solar energy is too diverse, too expensive to concentrate effectively to serve as a useful alternative to cheap oil and coal, similarly wind is not moveable, varies with the weather at times, and isn't cheap to build or maintain.

That is, alternative energy successes, so far, have been as important as the moon shot. They got a lot of engineers employed (you should here Jerry Pournelle explain how the space shuttle program was an astounding success -- it was designed primarily to employ the 20-some thousand engineers from Apollo, and did it successfully). Alternative energy plans and projects got a lot of funds raised, and a lot of important science accomplished. But the moon shot didn't foster space-borne industry or exploration and colonization, and alternative energy, so far, hasn't benefited average Americans, let alone the rest of the world.

There is another parallel, perhaps even more frustrating. By planning the "success" of the space program in 10 years, Kennedy assured that he wouldn't be held accountable for any failures. Obama talks about budgets and 10-year promises for the same silly reason, he wants to do whatever he wants with no on looking over his shoulder or holding him to account.

@ Paul Wren,

Mostly the drive to the moon shot was used to take direct control of public education from the Federal government, to assure that liberal agenda talking points were instilled in America's youth. Don't let the fact that America's teachers are mostly union escape your notice; the agendas overlap. The generations of engineers and scientists were seen at the time as a way to grow government with the consent of America.

What we need now is the same elders to teach us farming and gardening that 50 years of the space age told us was 'old fashioned', to reacquire a useful kind of local resilience.

ToSeek @5:

You're right of course; when I wrote that I was thinking of Von Braun's contrasting opinions of meeting Kennedy as opposed to Hitler: Kennedy he thought intelligent and inquisitive -Hitler: not so much...

By starskeptic (not verified) on 05 Jan 2012 #permalink

It wasn't just political considerations that almost killed Apollo before the Moon landing, but also the Apollo 1 disaster, which weighed heavily on planners' minds.

And Apollo 13 provides a different sort of lesson. If the Apollo program as a whole is supposed to stand in for a massive, societal-level project, then Apollo 13 represents something of the opposite: a relatively small group working with almost nothing but sweat and spare parts has to jerry-rig a solution to a life-or-death situation.

I believe that "But we put a man on the moon!" has become a total stock phrase, something people say without really thinking about to illustrate THEIR belief that if we can put people on other planets (I know the moon isn't really a planet, but you know what I mean), we should be able to do anything we want to with THIS planet. Such reasoning, is, of course, not well thought out at all, but it seems to make people feel good to use it.

You seem to be taking a sadly naïve view of this. Your first problem is your implicit assumption that if someone says "If we can go to the Moon we can sure develop alternate fuel technologies" they're taking the same pedantic view of which you're accusing them. I don't doubt that there are people like that, but my geuss is that there are many more who take the view I do, which is not that we should emulate the Apollo program just for the sake of winning a race which offers no prize.

The view I take is that what gilded the Apollo program was an effort which had the support of successive governments and the broad acceptance of the people (at least initially), which resulted in serious efforts being put into developing technology and financing this development generously.

I don't see that anyone wanting such a program aimed at developing alternative fuel technologies somehow is simultaneously demanding that we have no end-goal in sight. Quite the opposite is in fact true. There is a clear end goal: getting rid of dependence on fossil fuel, and there isn't just one route to that goal, there are many.

You also appear naïve in your view of the space program when you seem to imply that the ideal was a space station first, from which launches could be made to the Moon and elsewhere. Eexcuse me but how are people to get to the space station to begin with? Do they teleport there and then use rocket technology to get to the Moon?

The truth is that it makes no difference whether they start from an orbiting space station or start from the surface of Earth: before they can launch from Earth orbit, they have to actually get to Earth orbit. The Apollo program launched all of its flights to the Moon from Earth orbit using only the realtively tiny third stage of the Saturn Five. Unfortunately it needed the massive stages one and two to get the third stage into orbit before it could launch to the Moon.

Even if you're arguing that we can build the vehicles in orbit, we still have to get the material into orbit. The only way around that is to mine the materials and manufacture them in orbit and we're a looong way from that level of ability.

You argue that we wasted disposable rockets, but the alternative was tried. It was called the shuttle program and was far more expensive than the Apollo program ever was and resulted in far more astronaut deaths. And no fuel savings that I could see - because they had to get the shuttle into orbit too!

The truth is that there's little reason to send people into space right now - not until we develop technologies to do it that are way beyond our horizon at this time. But none of that has anything to do with why we can't get a government and a people with the will to apply the money, effort, and technology we need to get alternate fuel technologies on the front burner now. And yes, if we could develop that will and motivation to put someone on the Moon we sure as hell could, in theory, do it for a far more valuable and rewarding purpose.

The details of the Apollo program are not a blueprint for alternate fuel technology; however, the spirit of the Apollo program is a prototype.

I just spent the last hour in this site, and I am in love. I particularly liked the piece on life on the farm, the answer as to whether farming is hard work. My entire yard in Minneapolis, at a lot and a half, is a garden. I hope someday to be living much as you do. Thanks.

As for the space race, I feel like, despite all that we have done, all the various machines we have scanning the solar system, and our awareness of the quantum realm, we remain in the infancy of understanding. I hope only that we do not lose what understanding we have achieved, in the unraveling of our society, the next few centuries. Blessings to you and your family,

WHD - www.offthegridmpls.blogspot.com

Ms Astyk:

Thank you for this interesting post. Although I generally agree with what you say in your essays, I wonder if you have missed a fundamental point here.

At the time of the moon landings I was working in Johannesburg, South Africa. The apartheid regime of the day did not allow people to have televisions so they showed the moon landings (for free) in newsreel form at the local bioscopes (cinemas, movie theaters). I went to one of these showings and was absorbed by the magic and the thrill of what we (Americans specifically and mankind generally) had achieved. We had put a man on the moon (and got him back safely). That was just amazing.

To me the irony of your essay is that those of us, including yourself, who so eloquently point out the difficulties that face us may fail to provide a vision of where we might be. Certainly, the future does not consist of an SUV in every pot - but surely the Peak Oil community should work toward "what might be" - something that, in the old-fashioned phrase, "takes us out of ourselves". Maybe John Kennedy understood something that we do not.

I hear that the Chinese are now preparing a moonshot program. Good for them. They at least understand per ardua ad astra.

(And things can change for the better. At that time, under a policy of nie blanke, the South African bioscopes were open only to whites for the first three days of the moonshot newsreels. Those days are behind us - hopefully for ever.)

Something perhaps overlooked: Human Space Flight (HSF) is petering out but unmanned (robotic) missions are continuing. It is far, far more cost effective to send a rover to Mars than to send people there - and a person in a bulky space suit isn't much more able to work in that environment than are robots.

Maybe the lesson *should* be that NASA learns from its experience (although notably, many politicians keep trying to steer NASA toward expensive, risky HSF missions). NASA sends spacecraft, satellites and probes to unravel mysteries of the Universe. We are learning a tremendous amount about space - both near Earth and out of the Solar System. Maybe in a century, we'll have technology to send humans safely into space in an economical manner but right now it doesn't pass the cost-benefit analysis.

By Bad Boy Scientist (not verified) on 06 Jan 2012 #permalink

This collaboration stuff can become a syntactical quagmire:

... none of the nations with space programs ... are all floundering to decide ...

The proverbial blue pencil must be wielded ruthlessly - even on those who have the power to serve your corn flakes mushy!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 07 Jan 2012 #permalink

Sure, you have decent technical points, altho I do think that the "inspirational" value of the Moon shot is a worthwhile tonic aside from the specific misleading analogies that might be formed.

@andy Brown - my 18 yr-old son really WANTS to be an astronaut and is beginning to take steps to reach that reality; maybe a little slower than I would like - but I didn't really do much at his age, either.

In my mind, the Apollo program was the end result of rocket engine development started in the 1920's by Robert H. Goddard and refined by Wernher von Braun from the 30's through the 60's. From the Apollo program, we learned how to build big rockets and build organizations capable of operating that complex machinery.

Unfortunately, the manned program seems to have become a "jobs program" that exists primarily to salve various political interests rather than actually move things forward. And into this environment steps new companies - like OSC and SpaceX. These companies are lean (at least compared to NASA) and have the advantage of NASA's knowledge.

My money is on SpaceX to best utilize the gifts that have been provided; they used NASA to develop a robust engine, developed some rockets around that engine and are in the process of developing human-rated hardware for carrying folks to the ISS. The best part, at least in my mind, is their dreamer in the driver's seat - Elon Musk; he wants to help make humans multi-planetary, starting with Mars in his lifetime.

Like all journeys, there are many steps along the way. The next step for SpaceX is a resupply mission to the ISS tentatively scheduled for Feruary 7th. The goals of this mission are to prove the systems that SpaceX has built, deliver some supplies for the ISS and de-orbit some waste in preparation for de-orbiting completed science experiments.

I'm old enough to have watched some of the Gemini and all of the Apollo flights on tv - all but the last couple Apollo flights took place when I was in elementary school. As one of the comments pointed out, one of the effects of the space flights was to captivate a cohort of people, myself among them, enough to eventually become scientists and engineers ourselves. But it isn't quite correct to say that it was the goal of getting a man on the moon that did that. Rather, the ramping up of STEM programs came from the Sputnik launch in 1957, the year I was born. Reflection on why the Soviets did it first brought notice to the poor state of STEM education in the U.S. compared to the Soviet Union. It was that recognition, well before the moon landing was decided on, that led to the improvements in STEM programs in the 1960s. Those improvements, in turn, benefited the children of the time like myself. It may be that the moon landing inspired more of us than would have otherwise to consider STEM careers, but the programs already in place were what made us good at those careers - at least to whatever extent we were/are good at them.

My 18 yr-old son really WANTS to be an astronaut and is beginning to take his first steps to reaching that dream!

Apollo was the refinement of a single idea (liquid-fuel rocket engines) - not at all like the energy dilemmas we face now. Those engines were built for performance; our energy issues involve lots of trade-offs including capital, atmospheric pollution, nuclear contamination and unintended consequences.

Fortunately - the knowledge gained during the Apollo program is available to US companies. For example, SpaceX is using this knowledge to build low-cost rockets with the eventual goal of getting out of low earth orbit.

An article which has to claim

"Myth : We walked on the moon"

is clearl;y written from bizzarroland. We, or at least representatives of a previous generation, did. They were not faked.

There is no slightest honest argument that we did not; that it could not have been continued; or that if the drive & respect for science were there that we could not have long ago solved all the serious tech problems we face.

You are quite correct that there was a change in fashion at the beginning of the 70s. This is when the ecofascists, who had previously been influential in killing 70 million Africans, promoting Luddite frauds like LNT, drastically slowing space development & slowing the rate of economic growth from its high point in 1958, came to dominate policy and destroyed the space programme; prevented us having cheap electricity; cut growth to the extent we are being overtaken by China.

They did this by using "environmental lies" (eg global cooling, pollution refucing life expectancy to 42 & the oil running out about 1980. U trust no ecofasckist will dispute they were lies, though I have yet to see any of them apologise.

They also did this by pretending a belief in science which none of them actually have - see how Luddites absolutely opposed to science or even freedom of thought, adopt the title "scienceblogs". Are there any circumstances under which anybody or any statement on the ecofascist side can ever be treated as emanating from an honest or even civilised source? Timur was, by comparison, civilised and constructive.

@17 - Neil Craig
I think that you're taking "Myth : We walked on the moon" out of context; walking on the moon is not at issue (yes, we've been there and back) - believing that technology will solve our problems is at issue.

This is a cultural and psychological problem; we HAVE the technology (or at least a good idea) on how to resolve the issues facing our civilization. We don't have the institutions or willpower to implement the technology at a scale needed to live sustainably.

The global cooling theory from the 70's was partially based on Milankovitch cycles in conjunction with an observed cooling in the northern hemisphere. Additionally, some scientific conjecture was taken out of context without the appropriate caveats (imagine THAT!!!)

You probably need to distinguish more clearly between "space" and "manned space flight". in particular when you say things like: "The difference between the internet is that it actually came to have a regular impact on ordinary people - space never did."

To take just one example - GPS directed application of fertilisers to crops has done a great deal to increase yields, cut costs and feed a burgeoning population Possibly even more than ground-based technologies like GM seed stock, but to be sure it has a daily impact on the lives of billions.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

Great article. Two things I'd like to comment on;

[Going to the moon in 8 years] is an impressive technological achievement.

I think it's an impressive political achievement as well. By today, megaprojects are unpopular and unaffordable. I think China is the only state with sufficient political capital and economy to launch projects of similar magnitude ... and, came to think of it, they are rolling out quite some megaprojects, including expansion of high speed rail network, three gorges dam, south-north water transfer project, etc.

The difference between the internet is that it actually came to have a regular impact on ordinary people - space never did.

It should probably read "manned space flight" rather than just "flight"? Because there is no doubt that the "first space age" has had a notable impact on ordinary people.

Will we ever get out of Low Earth Orbit again? Will we ever get further than the moon? I'd say yes ... but probably not this century. It's simply not possible to found a proper "space age" based on chemical rockets.

By Tobias Brox (not verified) on 09 Jan 2012 #permalink

"This is a cultural and psychological problem; we HAVE the technology (or at least a good idea) on how to resolve the issues facing our civilization. We don't have the institutions or willpower to implement the technology at a scale needed to live sustainably."

Eric, this is a sobering statement.

And yet we need hope and do our best to improve the situation.

Perhaps Sharon and you could collaborate again and discuss the tipping point scenarios, when the changes would accumulate into rapid unpredictable ones on a global scale -- how much time might we have before the environment we are familiar with changes in major ways (if humanity continues on the present path)?

@21 - rena
Sorry, rena - I am NOT Sharon's collaborator (and partner) on this piece; I am merely another insightful (I hope!) man who shares his first name ;-)

And while I have some thoughts on various tipping points - the coolest one to me can be demonstrated with a simple experiment.

Put a beer in the freezer for a while, but don't let it freeze solid. If you can get the temperature just right, the beer will be liquid until there is a "shock" to the bottle - which can be a tap on the counter or opening it up. Once the beer is shocked, ice crystals will form somewhere and then expand to fill the volume of the beer. If you had opened the bottle, you have to wait for the ice to melt before you can get any beer out of the bottle.

Fair points Eric. I am very pleased to see somebody on "scienceblogs" agreeing that all our problems can be technologically solved if the wil is there. I normally bristle at the politically loaded word "susstainably" but if it is taken to mean that we do indeed have enough energy (nuclear, SPS or even windmills should they ever appear sensible) to keep the entire world wealthy for billions of years then we have no disagreement.

However if that is accepted then the only thing standing between humanity & worldwide wealth are the false scare stories used by anti-science "environmentalist" Luddites, so common on "scienceblogs", who aspire to drive us back to a mixture of totalitarianism and medievalism.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 12 Jan 2012 #permalink