Goodnight, Moon Travel: It’s time to save planet Earth. And our inspiration, once again, comes from JFK

NewsI have a new article at Salon, “Goodnight, moon travel.”

I discuss how the challenge of averting catastrophic climate change is quite different from the Apollo program — particularly in scale and participation.  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.  And Apollo was, ultimately, a government program that Americans could gaze at and wonder from afar. Decarbonizing the economy is a national effort that every American will need to participate in.

I focus in the piece on 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:

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….

… such a pace [of technological change] cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers.

For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own…

Relatedly, the point that I made in, “Sorry, Buzz Aldrin, we’re not sending people to Mars by 2029 to ‘homestead’ or study ‘climate change’,” is one that the great science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson almost makes in the Washington Post today:

So, what actions, taken today, will help our children, and theirs, and theirs? From that perspective, decarbonizing our technology and creating a sustainable civilization emerge as the overriding goals of our age. If going into space helps achieve those goals, we should go; if going into space is premature, or falls into the category of “a good idea if Earth is healthy,” it should be put on the science fiction shelf, where I hope our descendants will be free to choose it if they want it.

We already know that putting more people beyond Earth orbit — a fantastically expensive thing to do — offers little hope of helping us on the urgent mission of creating a sustainable civilization.  Robinson should just say so, but his science fiction roots, I guess, stop him.

Interestingly, House Energy and Commerce Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) has issued his own statement comparing the Apollo mission with our climate and clean energy challenge:

The first landing on the Moon crystallized, for all humanity, what we can do when we apply our genius, enterprise, and the spirit of exploration to extraordinary goals. Forty years ago today, America both inspired the world and made clear that she was the world’s leader in science, technology, and advanced industry when Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon.

In the midst of war abroad and turmoil at home, it was one of this Nation’s proudest moments.

We have an opportunity today to reassert America’s leadership by undertaking a mission every bit as important as sending astronauts to the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.  As with the space program, this new mission will revitalize our economy, create jobs, and spur research, development, and innovation.

Today’s challenge is to restructure our energy profile to finally become significantly less dependent on imported oil, thereby promoting our national security; to tap new, clean renewable energy sources and become much more energy efficient in our homes, businesses and factories, all of which will drive massive investment and jobs growth; and to meet the very real and dangerous threat posed by global warming pollution.

In 1969, the landing on the moon was the culmination of the space race with the Soviet Union.  Once again, to meet today’s challenges, we are on the brink of a revolution in science and technology – this time focused on the imperative of a clean energy future.  Today, we are engaged in a clean energy technology race with other countries.  Today, it is South Korea which supplies most of the batteries for our electric cars.  China is building 6 wind farms of 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts each, has raised its 2020 target for solar power to 20 gigawatts, and is committed to spending more than $30 billion for construction of renewable and other clean energy technology projects.  This is a race for leadership of the prime growth industry of the 21st century – and we cannot afford to run second.  The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) of 2009  provides $190 billion in investment in new clean energy technologies and energy efficiency, clean coal technology, electric and other advanced technology vehicles, and basic scientific R&D. ACES will power our renewed leadership in clean energy.

Thanks to President Obama’s leadership, we in the House of Representatives have already taken the first firm steps on the landscape of energy independence for America and fighting global warming by our support of The American Clean Energy and Security Act.

When President Kennedy, in 1961, challenged the country to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade, that goal seemed difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  But Congress and the American people rose to the challenge, and made the impossible, real.  It took leadership, unrelenting focus, ingenuity, some minor scientific miracles, and billions of dollars, but we were willing to work and sacrifice to succeed to ensure a better future.

Consistent with the spirit that lifted Apollo 11 to the Moon, American expertise, innovation, and commitment will once again triumph.  Just as we did 40 years ago, America must be the one to lead the world.  I am convinced we will come together in the Congress this year to enact comprehensive clean energy legislation that will enable us to, once again, accomplish what once seemed impossible – for the betterment of our country, our people, our environment, and our future.

In my Salon piece, I have my own spin on the similarity and difference between the two missions — Apollo and decarbonization.

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 (see “CBO stunner: Waxman-Markey cuts U.S. GHGs sharply but costs only a postage stamp a day “” without counting the efficiency savings“).

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.

25 Responses to Goodnight, Moon Travel: It’s time to save planet Earth. And our inspiration, once again, comes from JFK

  1. Mark Shapiro says:

    A “clean energy race”. I like it.

    Oh, to hear Senator Inhofe say, “Mr, President, we must not allow a clean energy gap!”

  2. Brewster says:

    Mark, have you had these delusions for long?

    I’m sure there’s medicine for that…

  3. Jim Eaton says:


    I passed along your comments to my friend and neighbor, Stan Robinson. Don’t know if he’ll respond.


    [JR: Thanks! I am a big fan of his — especially the awesome Mars trilogy.]

  4. Jim Beacon says:

    I agree that we need a national/global committment equal to the Apollo program in scope to address Climate Change. Making the comparison is valid. But I do not agree that sacrificing our space program follows as a logical result of that comparison. Let’s not forget that virtually all of the technology we will be using to deal with greenhouse gases saw its first development and deployment space program — from solar panels to electronic devices designed to use the least amount of energy possible. And then there’s all the fantastic and valuable research done on the Earth that takes place from space.

    Our space program, including our people-in-space program, has repaid its cost in both money and carbon emissions many times over and will continue to do so — but we must set reasonable, productive goals for it, not mere wasteful publicity stunts. The space station is one such valuable endeavor. Going to Mars right now is not. But returning to the moon to learn how to set up a permanent colony outside of Earth’s orbit is. We need to keep pushing that technological boundary. Imagine what we might have already learned about carbon sequestration technology and and other advanced resource recycling techniques if we had been operating a moon base for the past 20 years.

  5. Margaret says:

    You state that “In 2002 dollars, the entire Apollo program cost $185,000,000 over 10 years.”

    I don’t know where your info on the cost of the Apollo program comes from, but according to:

    The total Congressional Budget Appropriations for 13 years of the Apollo program, from 1960 to 1973 was:


    If you pick the year of highest appropriation (1966) and use 1966 dollars as the start point for the inflation calculation, you get a total Congressional Budget Appropriation expenditure of:

    $107,763,065 in 2002 dollars.

    using the CPI inflation calculator at

    [JR: I guess you never heard of hyperlinks. Anyway, I included the link to my source (here), as everyone else can plainly see.]

  6. stroller says:

    Sorry for the OT post Joe, but the thread I found this on is closed for comments.

    “I stand by my offer to bet $1000 that the decade from 2010 to 2019 will be warmer than the decade from 2000 to 2009. I’ll even give you 2-to-1 odds or spot you 0.1°C. And I’ll even agree to use the HadCRUT3 global mean surface temperature data set (but, no, I can’t agree to use the satellite data, since it covers parts of the atmosphere that are projected to cool).”

    Subject to your agreement to use an average of both surface indices and both satellite indices, I’ll take you up on that if you are still open to bets.

    I have a question though. If parts of the atmosphere are projected to cool, how is co2 going to be the cause of the warmer than ever decade you predict?

    [JR: Subject to your inability to read what I wrote, I will ignore your non-response.]

  7. dhogaza says:

    I have a question though. If parts of the atmosphere are projected to cool, how is co2 going to be the cause of the warmer than ever decade you predict?

    Climate theory predicts that when GHGs trap more IR in the troposphere, the stratosphere will cool. This has been measured and is one of a set of successful predictions made by those computer models that “don’t work”.

  8. rquick says:

    Love the title of the post.

  9. Philip H. says:

    How do you react to the companion editorial by Michael Griffin (he, late the head of NASA) who says that, in letting manned spaceflight go, we’re abandoning a core principle that has defined the U.S. since it’s inception – namely pioneering and exploration?

    I’d also argue that, if you are going to draw analogies between manned space flight and climate change, you missed a biggie (which Griffin acutally describes in fair detail). We went to the moon, inspite of President Kennedy’s words, to keep the Soviets from doing it first. it was national competition set against the backdrop of the cold war. Imagine if we could frame the climate hcnage debate as “We need to get to a carbon neutral economy before China does . . . “

  10. Chris Winter says:

    In the Salon article, you write that for America to fight climate change will need “a small fraction of its wealth and scientific talent.”

    [JR: Only if we started seriously now.]

    Since that is the case, I wonder why you feel that the space program has to be shut down in order that we can afford to deal with climate change. Or am I misreading you? Maybe you feel it’s just the grandiose “flags and footprints” mission to Mars that should be abandoned.

    I believe, and have long argued, that progress in space travel is a vital goal. Of course we don’t need to send humans to Mars, or even to the Moon, ASAP. But we must keep at the vital job of developing the means for humans to travel to and operate in those places. The good news is that we can do that, and still fight climate change, and do all the other things that preserve human society — even the things that are hard.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    Brewster –

    My comment was clearly an allusion too far. Discussing the space race, along with Waxman’s call for a clean energy race race, reminded me of the cold war, and General Turgidson’s line in Dr. Strangelove, “Mr, President, we must not allow a mine shaft gap!”

    Waxman’s phrase “clean energy race race” is effective and bears repeating. It can counter the Republican/conservative defeatism.

    Of course there is a critical difference between our current clean energy race race and the arms race, missile race, and space race of yore. The clean energy race race isn’t between the US and USSR, or between east and west. It is all of humanity against our own baser impulses.

  12. Margaret says:


    Of course I’ve heard of hyperlinks.


    [JR: Then why did you write “I don’t know where your info on the cost of the Apollo program comes from.” My source is one of the leading experts on R&D programs, and the sources he cites seem credible to me, so I suggest you take it up with him.]

  13. cougar_w says:

    One of the biggest PR challenges of the AGW saga (and its positioning) is the perception that solving AGW will take us backwards, not forwards. The appeals to “think of all the clean energy technology we’d come up with!” doesn’t cut it with people for whom the height of capitalism and human achievement is the 400hp V8, 75+ MPH freeways linking suburbs filled with McMansions with granite counters, and cheap gas. Nothing comes close to this level of success. Evar.

    Of course we ARE going to go back. How far is something of an open question. The emergent reality is that a civilization forced to live within the means of incident sunlight isn’t going to foster anything much like the Sacred American Way of Life as GM and Standard Oil have enshrined it. Technical utopias not withstanding, unless you intend to give up eating you will probably have to give up driving. Or else make all those other 6.5 billion people give up driving and/or eating. Whatever.

    Until the leadership just comes out and say “sorry folk, that party is over” and people have their 2-3 years temper tantrum I don’t see how any of this is moving forward an inch.


  14. Margaret says:

    Fine. So I should have said “the source you cite for the $185 billion seems to be incorrect” instead of “I don’t know where your info comes from”. But that is not the real issue, is it? Isn’t the issue the accuracy of the $185 billion figure?

    The Kammen-Nemet article you referenced cites as its source “National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, 2004”. As you say, the NSF is a reliable government agency, so I did a search of the entire Science Resources Statistics database at the NSF here:

    And found 8 entries for “apollo program”, none of which talks about the total cost of the program in 2002 dollars (or any other parameter). Kammen-Nemet seem to have provided an invalid citation.

    On the other hand, the link I provided is also from a reliable government agency and shows year-by-year detail on the budget appropriations for the Apollo program: SP-4029/ Apollo_18-16_Apollo_Program_Budget_Appropriations.htm


    [JR: I’ll ask Kammen to reply.]

  15. casey chapple says:

    Poor Margaret.

    Your snips tell the whole story about you.

    You really took a kick in the pants on the Salon article, eh? Is that why you are abusing your posters here so much? Or are you always like that?

  16. red says:

    First, let me say that I’m pro-space, but I’m not biased towards manned spaceflight. If we took the entire NASA manned spaceflight budget, and shifted it towards NASA’s unmanned programs, that would be fine with me … provided a considerable amount of it was devoted to lots of smaller, cost-effective missions. I’m not in favor of NASA’s big manned spaceflight rocket programs like Ares 1, Ares V, or the Space Shuttle. If we can’t manage to do better than that, I say let’s do something different.

    However, I think we can do better with manned spaceflight. In fact, the original Vision for Space Exploration made a lot of sense. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board noted that the Columbia astronauts died on a mission that wasn’t worth risking their lives to do. Having decided to not shut down manned spaceflight, the Administration decision was to give astronauts a mission worth risking their lives to do – exploration and ultimately settlement of the solar system.

    The Vision for Space Exploration was very specific in many areas. It was (is?) to be driven by economic, science, and security benefits to the nation, centered on commercial participation, fit within the constrained manned spaceflight budget, feature strong international participation, focus on sustainability using in-space resources, incorporate a strong, complimentary robotic exploration program, and be driven by an ambitious research and development effort. In short, although it superficially resembled Apollo in that it included an astronaut return to the Moon, it was a radically different approach than Apollo. The Aldridge Commission backed this approach.

    When former NASA Administrator Griffin took over, he threw out every one of the central goals of the Vision for Space Exploration, and the nationally-relevant, commercial, international, R&D-based, affordable, and sustainable approach to reach those goals. He turned the VSE into another monolithic, in-house NASA government rocket-building exercise, similar to Apollo, but in slow motion, and without the ground-breaking innovation inherent in doing it the first time. He even cut NASA R&D, science (including Earth science), and aeronautics more than before the VSE. This, to say the least, has been hugely controversial in the space community.

    Now Obama has a blue-ribbon panel looking at how to recover from this situation. They have every chance to make the manned spaceflight program affordable, productive, and useful for science, education, national security, and economics. Given the selections on the Human Space Flight Plans Committee, as well as the NASA Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and Chief of Staff, and given Obama’s specific promises in his campaign document on Space Policy, I doubt manned spaceflight will be eliminated soon. If manned spaceflight isn’t showing results obviously worthy of the expense in, say, 8 years, but which time Joe anticipates serious attention to climate, then it probably would be time to think about shutting it down.

    “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.”

    Actually, a whole generation of productive scientists and engineers chose their careers because of Apollo (and Sputnik). An innovative manned spaceflight program could do this again. Picture the year 2025, doing Apollo again, but with 4 astronauts instead of 2.

    Uhhh, I guess that left you cold. That’s the Griffin VSE.

    Now picture the real VSE. It’s more than just the Moon or manned spacelfight, but let’s just stick with that part. Picture numerous robotic precursors mapping the Moon’s resources, preparing a base, delivering modern HD “participatory exploration” content to Earth, setting up regolith processing equipment to provide shielding for shelters, bulk parts of industrial equipment assembled on the Moon, and oxygen for life support, rocket fuel, and eventual export to support satellite fuel needs. This type of robotics is also useful here on Earth. Picture propellant depots in space allowing lunar landers and orbit transfer vehicles to be used again and again – a much easier job than tackling launching from Earth. Such space infrastructure has many uses beyond manned spaceflight. Picture diverse commercial and international participation, sharing the costs and benefits. Picture skipping the 20-year NASA rocket-building exercise altogether, and using existing EELVs and new commercial rockets like Falcon 9 and Taurus II.

  17. red says:

    … continuing my long post …

    “But incredibly expensive efforts like a manned space program …”

    It has always been, but doesn’t always have to be, incredibly expensive. We know it’s expensive if we put the Marshall Space Flight Center in charge of building rockets. We know Senator Shelby is against commercial space, and wants us to send more money to Huntsville, Alabama. We know that Utah (ATK) and Texas (JSC) agree. We know Ares 1/Orion will cost $35B-$50B to reach Space Station crew/cargo transportation capability, while NASA’s commercially-oriented COTS program costs NASA $500M, or a couple orders of magnitude less money, to encourage Orbital and SpaceX to do the same thing for cargo with 2 independent systems (delivering low-cost rockets in the bargain – very useful for Earth observation satellites now that the Air Force is phasing out Delta II support). SpaceX suggests ~300M more for crew capability.

    “We already know that putting more people beyond Earth orbit – a fantastically expensive thing to do – offers little hope of helping us on the urgent mission of creating a sustainable civilization.”

    Again, we know one politically-driven way to make it fantastically expensive. However, there are many other approaches we have never tried. If we have the political ability to try more promising approaches to human spaceflight, there are real prospects it could help us without unreasonable expense in numerous urgent areas, such as energy, environment, disaster warning and relief, economics, national security, education, biology/health, and science. The VSE approach offers 1 fairly ambitious but possible way – driving innovation and developing space resources that can be used in our unmanned satellite networks that already contribute to these areas, but that could contribute much more with appropriate space infrastructure and resupply.

    However, the point about the expense of leaving Earth orbit (minus the transfer vehicles, depots, and fuel I mentioned) is well-taken. Even within Earth orbit, manned spaceflight could, if directed properly, contribute a lot. Imagine the Hubble repair mission, but done using affordable commercial vehicles, and applied to numerous, similar Earth-observation satellites used for science, defense, economics, carbon treaty monitoring, and so on. Imagine ISS (almost complete and ready for its main work finally!), SpaceX Dragonlabs, and Bigelow space stations used for many economic and science purposes, including some with energy/environment implications like closed-loop life support (recycling), power-efficient components, power-generation components, Earth observations, and so on. Imagine reusable suborbital rockets used for Earth observations and measurements, testing NOAA satellite components, and so on.

    “While technologically bold, the Apollo moon missions were, ultimately, a government program that Americans could gaze at and wonder from afar.”

    We don’t want to repeat Apollo. We need a program that is anchored by NASA, but that is fundamentally about commercial and international participation, returning benefits to the nation, and “participatory exploration”.

  18. stroller says:


    Subject to your agreement to use an average of both surface indices and both satellite indices, I’ll take you up on that if you are still open to bets.

    I have a question though. If parts of the atmosphere are projected to cool, how is co2 going to be the cause of the warmer than ever decade you predict?

    [JR: Subject to your inability to read what I wrote, I will ignore your non-response.]

    I did read and understand what you wrote, I was trying to negotiate a mutually acceptable bet. Ok, I’ll accept your terms, Hadcru it is, and no need for you to spot me 0.1C.

    You up for putting your money where your mouth is?

    [JR: Absolutely! We’re talking 2010-2019 vs. 2000-2009, yes?]

  19. stroller says:

    Ok, I’ll accept your terms, Hadcru it is, and no need for you to spot me 0.1C.

    You up for putting your money where your mouth is?

    [JR: Absolutely! We’re talking 2010-2019 vs. 2000-2009, yes?]

    Yep. So to be clear, you are betting 2010-2019 will be warmer than 2000-2009 has been, and you are betting me $1000 at 2:1 odds in my favour.
    i.e. If I win because 2010-2019 turns out to be a cooler decade than 2000-2009, you give me $1000. If you win because 2010-2019 turns out to be a warmer decade than 2000-2009, I give you $500. HadcruV3gl or their successor dataset will be the measure used to decide.

    Just to spice it up a bit, we will have a regular 6 monthly update on the progress of the bet on your site whether the bet is going my way or yours and my comments will be published. Agreed?

    [JR: Actually, Nate Silver’s restrictions on his bet have had an influence on me. He won’t even take a bet with someone who doesn’t write for a blog with an Alexa rank below 50,000 (i.e. more traffic than ClimateProgress!). So I what skin I have in the game — I have a very popular blog. The question is who the heck you are and what skin to you have in the game?]

  20. noorjahan says:

    I love mom and brother they play with me out siidea.

  21. stroller says:

    Hi Joe, It’s just a fun bet on a gentleman’s agreement, but if you are backing out, so be it. I already have a $1000 bet running from 2005 that global average temperature will be lower in 2015 than 2005, so I guess I shouldn’t be greedy anyway.

    [JR: Oh, I love the bet. It’s better than my Arctic bet though not quite as much a lock as the hydrogen bet. But those are bets with other bloggers. Everyone knows I’d have to pay up if I lost this bet — but I don’t know you from Adam. You could be a 12-year-old or some denier who disappears into the ether. That’s the issue.]

  22. stroller says:

    Joe, I protect my anonymity for my own work related reasons, but here’s an idea. I’ll lodge my $500 with a nominee of your choice, and you lodge your $1000 with a nominee of my choice. ;-)

    [JR: Hmm. Need to think about that. That’s freezing $1000 for 12 years! That could cost me $1000!]

  23. stroller says:

    You get your nominee to invest my money in your choice of green tech, and I get mine to invest yours in something nice and safe which won’t offend your sensibilities. Wheat/rice/soya futures would be a good one. It insures the farmer against a failed crop, and provides a good return to the investor when things get colder and crop harvest levels are down.

    Even if we don’t do it with real money, we could play pretend, and compare notes from time to time.

  24. The other day, as Walter Cronkite passed at 3:42 Pacific time, I was staring into the maw of the Mt. St. Helens volcano doing several days of hiking in the 1980 blast zone. I came back to my motel that evening (okay, I’m a civilized camper) to have the entire explosive experience of the 1960s that so shaped my life roll across my eyes, from the JFK assassination to Vietnam and the Moon landing to Watergate, all reported by Uncle Walter. You cannot look into the lateral blast crater of St. Helens, the rebuilding lava dome in the center, or have lived through the 1960s and 70s, without feeling deeply the reality of rapid change. That’s both our grave challenge and stellar opportunity. The only response to autocatalytic change in the climate system, so well and scarily reported by this site, is autocatalytic transformation of the energy system. There’s the New Apollo. I look at the green energy funding in the stimulus as the first investment in a new moonshot for energy, but it’s only the start. It took $185 billion in today’s dollars to get us to the Moon. The Mission the Planet Earth deserves at least an order of magnitude beyond that. Wit’ya’, Joe!