We choose the Moon (without the moan)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as the next guy. I even bought the t-shirt. But listening to Norman Lewis’ thought-provoking talk at TEDxLeeds, I worried that the narrative around the Moon landings is in danger of plunging us into a crater of dusty nostalgia, and doing down some of the amazing things that are happening in the 21st Century.

Norman’s hypothesis is that John F Kennedy’s commitment to the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” within a decade represented a kind of big picture leadership now lacking in the world. On his blog Futures-Diagnosis, he argues that:

this is the time to develop bold new arguments for why we need

  • more long-term investment in research (as opposed to the short-term funding of development);
  • more experimentation and less emphasis upon predictable outcomes driven by narrow ROI considerations; and
  • more failure to build success.

… and

… the US Space Program (despite being rooted in the politics of the Cold War) provided a bold vision and impetus to the generation of ground-breaking new research and innovation. The research created new industries while NASA provided impetus for the formation of thousands of new companies and product innovation. It is this kind of boldness that is so noticeably absent in our society today.

Really?

The Moon landing was almost the opposite of pure research. It was a development effort with a very practical, specific, measurable and timebound goal, which was met with just months to spare until the end of the Sixties. At just over eight years from inception to completion, the project was significantly shorter than, for example, bringing a new pharmaceutical product to market today.

Neither was it some swashbuckling escapade. America could doubtless have put a man or woman on the Moon even quicker had it not been for the “safely back to Earth” stipulation. Kennedy rightly and explicity included health and safety in the brief from the outset.

And as Norman acknowledges, and Tom Morgan develops further in his thoughtful review of TEDxLeeds, the motivation for the Moon expedition was far from idealistic. It was geopolitical, and possibly even colonial. Maybe we’d have been back more often if those samples of moonrock had proved to contain readily extractable supplies of gold, diamonds or oil.

All that would be an  interesting historical footnote were it not for the way the Moon landing is held up as some sort of benchmark against which early 21st Century people are supposed to fall short.

A trip to Mars would be a cool thing, even one-way as proposed by Paul Davis. Yes, I think we should have a go. But it seems a rather literalistic interpretation to say that, having done the Moon, we’ve lost our bottle as a society if we don’t go on to tick all the other boxes in the I-Spy Book of the Solar System.

It’s not as if humanity has been idle in the intervening 40 years. I think it’s also quite bold to:

These things may not have the same instant appeal as three men journeying to the Moon (and the estimated 500 million who stayed at home to watch them on TV) but they seem to me equally capable of generating massive and unforeseen innovation and benefits.

By all means have reverence and respect for the past. Be inspired by the Moon landing. But don’t let that stop you marvelling at the things our own generation is set to accomplish.