The vision, uncertainty and hard work of moon shots


This morning, spin class started with mash-up song of Kennedy’s 1962 Rice University speech about expanding the space program. We sprinted up a hill, fueled by these rousing words:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. 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, and the others, too.”

I resolved on the spot to listen to this every morning before starting work. What better way to get psyched up for the day’s challenges? It does make me wonder why our politicians don’t talk to us like that anymore. It’s become unpopular to tell people the truth about anything, or to promise that something will be hard. Ever since President Carter’s 1977 “MEOW” (“moral equivalent of war”) talk during the energy crisis, our leaders have been skittish to tell us the truth.

And no wonder. Carter’s talk opens with: “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you, about a problem that’s unprecedented in our history. . . . It’s a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years, and it’s likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.” Man! Talk about a downer! He should have studied Kennedy’s oratorical techniques. President Kennedy spun his dazzling vision and inspired people to hurl themselves into the unknown, with only the promise of a lot of hard work and no guarantee of success.

Lately, watching the Olympics, I’ve enjoyed being reminded that great things are indeed possible, and that they require hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. It’s part of the appeal of these Games.  A tiny spark of recognition is kindled when I see an athlete in a feat of daring, of grit, flexibility and strength, or grace and speed. I’m not deluded that I can do the same. I’m reminded that I, too, possess greatness. And if I want to shine, well, that will take work. Of course, I know that nothing great is ever achieved without a dream and an insane amount of hard work.

Hearing Kennedy this morning also got me wondering: what is our moon shot today? In the 2000s, some environmental and climate activists started The Apollo Alliance, to advocate for greater energy efficiency, renewable energy development, and green jobs. They argued that clean energy is the moon shot of our generation. It’s hard to disagree.

Maybe clean energy and efficiency haven’t yet soared as high as the space program because something is already in place that doesn’t want to budge. Decades-old infrastructure, financial incentives, powerful corporations, special interest lobbyists—all create tremendous inertia for business as usual and the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

By contrast, the space program was entirely new in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It filled a void, sparked our sense of adventure, and added the great appeal of competing against our enemy and winning. Kennedy played it up as an exciting, inspiring project, cool and futuristic:

“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”

The great architect, thinker, teacher, and visionary, Bucky Fuller, wrote about the early days of the space program. Soon after Kennedy’s speech, there was a big party to celebrate landing a man on the moon and bringing him back alive. The next day, a bunch of brainiacs gathered in a meeting and asked, Okay, now, how did we do that? Working backward, whenever they encountered some material or technology that had yet to be invented, they submitted a set of specifications to their newly created “Department of It Can’t be Done.” Uncertainty was embraced not only as an unavoidable condition, but as an asset. A blessing that drove outrageous innovation.

Today, there is one obvious sector where uncertainty drives innovation: technology. Silicon Valley and its cousins are bastions of the excitement and glamour of futurism. Even as the realities of climate change and peak oil bear down on our only home, this planet, we maintain the expectation, indeed the faith, that technology will save us. I know I’m not the only one who doubts that technology is the be-all-end-all to solve every social, economic, health, political, and environmental problem we face.

It may be that Kennedy can still guide us, even in a different direction. Right out of the gate at Rice University, he slings this gem that is as true today as it was then. Maybe more so.

“We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for 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.”

I am awed by the humanity and humility of these words. Besides clean, renewable energy, what is the hard work of today that will ask everything of us even as it brings out our best?

Slowing, stopping, and/or reversing climate change is certainly hard.

Choosing love and compassion instead of fear and hatred is hard.

Extricating ourselves from racism in every form—personal, institutional, and structural—is hard.

Addressing centuries of injustice towards people of color and indigenous people is hard.

Investing in and rebuilding our poorest communities is hard.

Making sure every child is well mentored, is seen and safe and loved, that each child’s unique genius is discovered, treasured, nurtured, encouraged, and welcomed, so that every child knows they are needed—that is hard.

Meeting an addict where she is—without judgment, shame, or blame—and then helping her to get the care and healing she needs is hard.

Let’s not be daunted by all the unknown factors, in any of these cases. Kennedy made it clear that the space program was a big adventure into the unknown. Try reading these words, holding in your mind one of the problems noted above, substituting its name for his words, “this program.” It’s a good feeling.

“ . . . for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.”

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