LTT Opinion: Why Obama needs a “we choose the moon” speech

It’s time for another “we choose the moon” speech. Instead of the moon, we need to set our sights on our own planet. It’s time to take a page from JFK’s play book and set the country on the path towards world changing innovation. The U.S. has the resources to lead the green charge, it just lacks the political will.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress an extraordinary and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. Like the Manhattan Project before it, the race to the moon mobilized an entire generation of the best and brightest minds towards a single and common purpose. Bi-partisan support in Congress and strong leadership in the White House focused the nation’s determination to achieve what many felt was impossible. In July of 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and onto the Moon’s surface, capping a remarkable period of innovation and commitment to progress.

This week, we (the U.S., mankind, sci fi geeks) celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11′s mission. Time, now, to imagine an ‘Energy Race,’ like the ‘Space Race’ of the 1960s, spurred on by national pride and global concern. Kennedy’s speech to Congress in May of ’61, like his “we choose the moon” speech at Rice University in September of ’62, remains a stirring reminder of the power of that office to inspire- especially for 21st century listeners; we know the challenges, the odds and, ultimately, the triumphs. Obama has the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet, to set us boldly on a course of pursuing something remarkable, something that would still inspire awe forty years from now.

“We choose to free ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels within a decade. We choose to ensure that all new homes built in this country produce as much energy as they consume. We choose to create the infrastructure for smart grids, a network of green bullet trains, highways with battery swap stations…,” he could say. And, as he did in Cairo, he could say it in a way that could inspire hope in the dignity of American ideals.

When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, the whole world was watching and cheering. It was mankind’s triumph. But Kennedy was motivated by Cold War ambitions and was aided by two important factors, that rivalry with the Soviets and, perhaps more importantly, a clear goal.

The Cold War

A month before his speech to Congress in May of ’61, Kennedy wrote a memo to Vice President Johnson, putting him in charge of assessing the state of our space program. Kennedy asked, “do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?” Later that month, Johnson responded, “the Soviets are ahead of the United States in world prestige…[but] the U.S. has greater resources than the USSR for attaining space leadership but has failed to make the necessary hard decisions and to marshal those resources to achieve such leadership.”

We could say the same about our efforts to confront climate change- others are ahead of the U.S. in world prestige, and, though the U.S. has greater resources, we have failed to make difficult decisions and to marshal those resources effectively.

Johnson argues in his note to Kennedy that the world will align itself with whichever nation it sees as being the “world leader” and that “dramatic accomplishments in space are increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership.” In conclusion, Johnson writes, “the American public should be given the facts as to how we stand in the space race, told of our determination to lead in that race, and advised of the importance of such leadership to our future.”

For Kennedy, the race to the moon had strategic military and political value- our way of life was in jeopardy.  Few questioned whether it was in our best interests to remain ahead of the Soviets in space exploration. For Obama, the narrative is more nuanced (a scientific consensus exists, but the political debate remains complex). But it’s still very much a story about the risks to our way of life, and Obama, as good as he is at delivering poignant speeches, could make that case convincingly.

A clear goal

Kennedy also had a very clear goal- get to the moon and back: a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, a mission with a concise rallying cry. The goals for Obama are more abstract and don’t come with a singular moment of triumph, like a man walking on the moon. The leading voices in the green movement- some of whom I saw speak last week at UVM’s “gameplan” summit- need to provide Obama with dramatic, appreciable goals that would have the power to inspire and provide a rallying cry. While we welcome green innovation from other parts of the world, the U.S. remains uniquely positioned to influence world economies- if we went green, the world would follow. And, let’s remind the Senator Inhofes and Rush Limbaughs of the world, if we don’t lead the way, we’ll be buying that technology from somewhere else.

Kennedy said of the ‘Space Race,’ “it will not be one man going to the moon…it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” Forty years on, the fact that we once mobilized the brightest minds to solve the most ridiculously complex of challenges should inspire us to do the same in our time. Any failure to make this effort will make us all last.

  • Tags: Conversation on Conservation, LTT Opinion, People, Places, Technology
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