Time to Think Big Again

To the Editor:

On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy in a speech before congress challenged America to send Americans to the moon and safely return them before that decade was over. He made this challenge even though the technology to accomplish it did not exist and there was not a consensus whether it was possible to send someone to the moon. We successfully met President Kennedy’s goal because of the cooperation of government, private industry, and academia. With their sense of optimism and belief in the better good, they overcame seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, tragedies, and setbacks.

As I read about the moonshot and viewed programs commemorating its 50th anniversary this summer, I wondered if such a feat would be possible today. America has lost its ability to think big and believing we can succeed against overwhelming odds. Our colonial ancestors certainly thought big when they decided to declare independence. They were not deterred by the unlikelihood that a group of unorganized and untrained soldiers would defeat the world’s superpower of their day.

Throughout our history, we have struggled to balance individualism and communal good. However, the scales now have tipped in favor of individualism to such an extent that it has morphed into selfishness. In the process, we have become small thinkers who no longer see the advantages of appealing to the “better angels of our nature.”

President Kennedy issued his challenge in part because he believed that democracy was facing an existential crisis. He feared that countries around the world would consider a Russian style dictatorship more advanced than America’s democracy if they put someone on the moon first. Some including former President Eisenhower and Senator Barry Goldwater believed that the moonshot was an unnecessary expense, that freedom could win out over totalitarianism by more affordable means. Senator John J. Williams of Delaware wryly quipped that increasing NASA’s funding could result in our debt “reach[ing] the moon be before we do.” Some believed that the moonshot should be accomplished at a slower pace with technology leading the way to the moon rather than the moonshot stimulating technology. Still others believed that the money would be better spent to address social problems.

Today all humankind is facing an existential crisis. It is climate change. Just as the moonshot had its doubters and distractors, so too does the climate crisis. Some deny that climate change exists. At the beginning of the space race, a minority of experts denied that humans could survive in outer space. They were wrong. Some say that we should take a slower approach that is less disruptive and make changes only when advances in technology allow for an easy transition. Landing a person on the moon within a decade showed that advances in technology occurs best when motivated by more than profit alone. Without the moonshot, the technology that is the foundation of today’s economy and which we take for granted would be years away.

If we are to reverse climate change in about the same timeframe as going to the moon, it will take the same type of cooperation and spirit that led to its success. President Kennedy knew that the exploration of space would continue even if the United States did not participate. The same is true for the climate crisis. If the United States chooses not to participate in solving the climate crisis, other countries will. Do we really want to play third fiddle to Europe and China? The moonshot produced unexpected economic and technologic advances that created a whole new cultural paradigm. Do we want Europe and China to have the economic and technologic gains from leading the fight against climate change? Do we want the world to look to them as the more advanced nations?

The New York Times reporter James Reston said of the successful lunar voyage that it not only made history, it expanded our view of what history could be. The same will be true when we reverse climate change. The United States has the opportunity to once again redefine what history can be, but only if we tap into the American spirit that President Kennedy eloquently spoke of when he 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.”

Steven Isham

St. Johnsbury, Vermont


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