Saturday, July 29, 2006

An Immodest Proposal

Forty-five years ago this past May a young man from Massachusetts stood before a joint gathering of the House and Senate and challenged America to go to the moon. The timing was crucial. The Soviets had placed the first human being in orbit in January and the United States had countered with the sub-orbital flight of Alan Shepard just a few weeks prior to the President’s speech. Now it is time to take longer strides,” Kennedy said, “time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

Kennedy didn’t just tell Congress that an American astronaut will go to the moon, he laid down the gauntlet for every American to pick up.

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Kennedy’s confidence in the ability of the Nation to achieve this daunting task was not boastful, but plainly spoken:

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Recently I have had occasion to think of President Kennedy’s challenge as I have grappled to understand the troubling path upon which we Americans find ourselves. Tyrants in the Middle East and South America are holding the United States hostage to their oil, while the swiftly rising economies in China and India gobble ever more of the precious stuff. The Wall Street Journal recently featuresd an article about how melting ice packs and glaciers will cause earthquakes as the surface crust rebounds from the sudden loss of pressure. They are now growing strawberries in Greenland. A doctor friend of mine recently dumped his year-old Lexus and bought a Prius, telling me that he “had to do something about global warming for his kids’ sakes,” and this lady fears the heat wave in San Francisco is the beginning of the end. What used to pass for the irrational, it seems, is becoming the commonplace. But something clearly needs doing.

In 1961, Kennedy saw the challenge as space. Today, I see that same sort of challenge here on Earth. I propose that we adopt Kennedy’s model and challenge the Nation to, by 2016, develop the mechanisms and support structure to replace the internal combustion engine. Not only are we up to the challenge, I dare say that we are the only nation capable of meeting it. But to do it will require a truly national effort.

First, we must regrettably halt our space program for the time being. Space isn’t going anywhere. Mars will wait for us while we fix things here on Earth. Instead of building space stations and manned rockets, NASA and it engineers will be turned to developing an alternative energy source to power land based vehicles. Although hydrogen comes first to mind, the wizards at NASA will be given free rein to develop alternative fuels and power plants, much like Kennedy had promised them in 1961.

The goal here is not only to develop an alternative source of power, but to also make it practical and affordable. (General Motors has been working on hydrogen-powered cars, but how much of that crippled giant’s resources can possibly be going towards such efforts?) NASA has exactly the kind of experience and personnel to bring this new technology to fruition. Funding the project will be the savings generated by halting in manned space exploration, and whatever resources this Nation is willing to muster to achieve this extraordinary goal. Once the power source is designed and tested, the technology will be made available to manufacturers world wide. Call it America’s gift to the planet and a finger in the eye of the oil tyrants.

The project encompasses far more than just designing an inexpensive power plant, however. Technologies must be developed to produce the fuel for the vehicles in a manner that does not just shift energy consumption. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by using natural gas, although other methods are being studied. NASA’s experience and bankroll would go far to accelerate these studies.

Of course, there would have to be some serious effort placed in developing the infrastructure to deliver the alternative fuels to market. Currently there is a single hydrogen pump at a Shell station in Washington, D.C. (can you guess why?). But a Nation that built the interstate highway system can surely devise a method to pump hydrogen from production to distribution. Petroleum companies might be given a stake in the production of the fuel thereby generating their interest in supplying the marketplace. Automakers too, must see reward in the development of the technology. I place sufficient trust in capitalism that these things will sort themselves out once it’s known that the change is coming and there is no turning back.

I realize that the challenge I speak of is daunting, but again I am reminded of Kennedy’s words to Rice University in 1962:

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.

We must choose to challenge ourselves again. To do great things "which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth. " We must choose to do these things to save both our liberty, and our environment. I believe that we’re up to the task. Someone just has to put it to us.

I'm looking for that someone.


portia said...

Bravo, spd. I am very glad you decided to put your idea, and the challenge, to paper. This is worthy of an op ed piece. Truly. You should shop this around.

I realize you are talking about developing another form of energy to power our needs and that should be the challenge America accepts but there is so much we can do in the upcoming 10 years to conserve our use of conventional energy uses. Beginning with holding Detroit's feet to the fire.

It's 33 years since we first felt the shock of our dependence on foreign oil and what have we have done to wean ourselves off the black gold other than build bigger and heavier cars?

An article I read reently explained that one of the reasons Toyota developed the Prius was because it believed America was serious about its effort to improve fuel economy under Clinton's 1994 PNGV program (to have Detroit develop a car by 2004 that would get 80 mpg) so it redoubled its R&D efforts to compete! The Prius was unveiled in Detroit in 1997. How's that for accepting a challenge?

Of course, Clinton's PNGV program and its 2004 deadline for automakers to develop their prototype was gutted dring Bush's first year as President but that's a different post:)

spd rdr said...

he fact remains, Portia, that the current crop of hybrids are not only inefficient from a dollars-to-doughnuts stand point (insofar as their claimed efficiencies do not pay for themselves for years) but that they are actually most expensive, energy wise, to produce and operated than a regular SUV.

I want something sensible out of this mess. I want the United States to once again confound and inspire the world with the strength of this nation's historic ingenuity, pragmatism, and diversity. Why shouldn't tyrants cower when faced with such a potent resolve?
And why should we cower from exhibiting it?
We can wait, or we can lead. I want leadership.

portia said...

I think one of us needs to read the Geek article you linked to again. What I read sounds like buying a hybrid is a win-win situation, except the cost of the tax credits to government (which is short-term I presume), and in my mind is more than offset by the 80% reduction in emissions between non-hybrid and hybrid cars. What am I missing?

Anyway, I didn't mean to get OT on discussion of hybrids. I mentioned the Toyota story because I thought it instructive of how "we" handled what may be viewed as a similar "challenge" when Clinton launched the PNVG initiative in 1994 comparing it to the Apollo space program.

At the time, Alex Trotman, chairman and chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co., said, "The challenges faced by the partnership are great. But if anyone can do the job, it's American scientists, engineers, the national labs, and private industry -- working together."

As long as Washington is in bed with Detroit, I fear the dance of the prototype will continue and it will remain too expensive, too impratical, too something for either to embrace seriously until WE demand it. This is a good start.

camojack said...

I think more research should be done to make biodiesel a viable alternative energy source.

Nuclear powerplants for vehicles might not be such a good idea, though...

Pile On® said...

I agree that we need to find alternative fuels for two reasons, I don't like smog and I don't like having to buy oil from the middle east and Hugo Chavez.

But I don't think there is anything to panic about. The climate might be changing, it certainly has before, but the notion that it is changing because of human activity is a stretch that can't be supported by any honest research that I have seen.

I can see why we needed NASA to go to the moon, there is no profit in that endeavor. But the person or company that can replace fossil fuels with an economically viable source will be able to buy and sell Bill Gates ten times over.

When oil was trading at ten dollars a barrel there was very little incentive to look for alternatives. That is not the case now.

What we don't need is a government arrangement with dinosaur companies that squeezes out the real inovators. Just keep the government out of the way and behold Yankee Ingenuity.

spd rdr said...

My point, Pile is that unlesss there is a timetable no concerted effort will be marshalled. Think of HDTV. It was, what, 10 or 12 years ago when the Government announce that we'd all have HDTV within six years, but the deadline has to keep being extended because the intrenched broadcasters wouldn't pony up the investment to make it happen. Here's a situation where is it the best interest of big oil (and Detroit, to a lesser degree) to fudge progress while at the same time covering themselves in "green." Ethanol? Seriously, what kind of a foll do they take us for not to be able to spot that boondoggle from ten miles away.

No, for this project we will need muscle - government muscle - to get the ball rolling. Once the timetable is set, and the technology starts coming into focus, THEN the entrepreneurs will come alive. The project is too big, too expensive, and too unorganized at this moment for serious investment. That would change quickly if industry knew, and could count on, a deadline.

Please don't think that I'm some Al Gore looney waiting for the end of timesm, either. I am far more concerned about the power of the Islamofascists and tin-pot gangsters dictating the foreign and domestic policies of these United States than about the ice caps melting. It's not that I don't believe that human endevours contribute to global climate change- crap, one Volcano in the Phillipines can do that - but when I can't see the Blue Ridge Mountains from the beautiful Shennendoah Valley because of the pollution raised by a single road -I-81 - then I get ticked.

It's okay, in my book, for the government to act in order to "promote the general welfare."
And there we are.

Cassandra said...

God spd.

You sound just like my husband. Maybe you *do* need to sit down and have a beer with him.

Just, for Pete's sake, do not break each other's noses. The thought of that much testosterone (or brain power, for that matter) in one room is more than this poor female can deal with. Be gentle with the less gifted of this world, wouldja?

spd rdr said...

Tapping foot...

Anonymous said...

I hesitate to enter into this argument, because I have been involved in this to one degree or another since college, over 30 years ago, and I have some very definite, if unpopular ideas and opinions.
1) The scale of the problem in the US is very large, growing larger every year. The economical nature of liquid fuels (like gasoline or diesel) preclude a rapid shift to "something else".
2) The Thermodynamic efficiencies of various "heat engines" is the prime cause. Most large scale electric power plants are only about 34-39% efficient, from a thermodynamic view, because it takes so much "heat" just to get water up to a temperature to do "work"; turning a steam turbine which spins a generator. Internal/external combustion engines are on the order of 60% efficient or better (nowadays) in converting fuel into mechanical energy. Are electric cars re-charged from big power plants really more "efficient"?
3) Solar energy has several forms: solar panels (don't work when the sun goes down, and don't work well at higher lattitudes for about 1/2 the year); wind power (more promising) but do you want a big windmill farm next door? NIMBY! Still less than a fraction of a percent of total electric power supply.
Solar power as "biofuels" (corn, biomass, sugar cane, sorghum) has similar limitations: cultivate vast areas of land to collect the "solar energy" and turn it into ethanol? Not really very efficient, there is a big tax subsidy (in the US) involved to make it work. Brazil makes it work (producing ethanol from sugar cane) because they have a hotter, tropical climate (and a smaller number of cars than the US).
4) Nuclear power: probably the most logical alternative for scaling electrical power supply increases, but big problems with the NIMBY thing. I doubt I'll see a new nuclear plant built in this country in my lifetime (MAYBE one or two, but that would be irrelevant to solving the problem).
5) Making methanol from coal, methanol as a liquid fuel for cars. Another 'logical' alternative; Dupont has had the technology for years (can even make gasoline from methanol), we've got plenty of domestic coal, but the government has to get behind this one. Portia mentioned the Clinton initiative regarding the "super" high mileage car; she should have also mentioned their choice to promote ethanol over methanol. Ethanol has big support from farm state senators and congressmen, but will never be the "big" answer we need. Methanol from coal COULD be the big answer, but it won't be promoted for a while yet, because it's not as "green" as ethanol and biomass and all the other incremental and marginal approaches.
Spd rdr is right. We need a national strategy to push a "big" solution, and fairly soon, too. I frankly don't have a lot of faith in the "free market", because it's not exactly free to begin with.
Most of the big oil companies are all doing research on many of these things, but nobody is going to step off first until they actually have a narket to sell into.
The big auto companies have been making "experimental" cars for decades, but have no fuel infrastructure to support a new market.
Chicken or eggs for breakfast?
There is no solution except to build, and build A LOT of new stuff. We just have to make an intelligent and realistic strategy and follow through with it

-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

Don's on board.
That's, what, five of us?
We've got movement!

camojack said...

OK, here's another (brilliant) idea; in the Southwest there are huge tracts of relatively useless desert land...which could be utilized to accommodate vast arrays of solar collectors.

Of course, more nuclear plants might help, but solar collectors have no radioactive byproducts that require careful disposal...

Cassandra said...

Oh no. The ominous tapping foot.

Never a good sign...

I'm allowed to enjoy it immensely when someone thinks of something I never would have, even if I've learned through long experience that it's safer to conceal my enjoyment beneath a liberal wrapping of snark.

Seriously, this is probably the biggest argument we have around my house. The spouse finds it "unforgivable" that the administration hasn't done more on this front - he maintains if Bush wanted to have a legacy, this was it. I agree this would have been a good starting place but have pointed out that 'something' happened 5 years ago that was mildly distracting.

It's all very well to point out that we haven't been attacked since but that is 20/20 hindsight. Had we not reacted the way we did, that might not have been the case. And in any event I look at the industry I'm in and firms are just now emerging from the risk-averse financial crouch they went into post 9/11. Even though numerically speaking 3000 dead wasn't that big a deal, we took a huge psychological hit on that day.

Politics is very much the art of the possible. My husband argues we should have used 9/11 as a lever to change our dependence on foreign oil and there is an argument to be made for that (though in the transition we may have created a supply vulnerability in defense and he acknowledges that b/c our military is overwhelmingly dependent on oil).

Anonymous said...

That land only LOOKS useless. :)

Just wait until you want to cover it with solar cells, etc. Then you will find out just how valuable it is as 'natural habitat' for endangered species. I'm sorry, but a solution that involves paving over huge amounts of land for collecting significant amounts of solar energy/electricity probably isn't going to fly.

-Don Brouhaha

Pile On® said...

Don, I don't think methanol is any kind of an answer either. Coal as a source is finite so it isn't too attractive for investment and the liability when peoples livers start metabolizing formaldehyde because of exposure to methanol isn't very attractive either.

You guys are looking at the next great source of energy through the lens of the last one. Yes, if it turns out that it has to be distributed in a similar manner than the infrastructure required makes the market impossible for a new small firm with a great idea.

But perhaps the next source of energy will be nothing like that?

I will go along with you on one point, if government wants to make a push for more research, fine. Do it. There are plenty of great minds at Universities and private sector labs to work on this.

Personally I think the answer is more likely to be found by a college drop out physics major in his garage than in a lab of some government/private sector money pit.

Anonymous said...

Geez, Pile, are you some sort of safety honky now??
Let's talk about money pits.
How many billions spent by Feds on nulcear power research, and how little applied? a lot. Ditto for "fusion power", like that's been promised for 40-plus years now, since I was a kid.
I agree that the Federal Gov. has an innate ability to waste money on things that can't be successfully commericalized, so we need to get them to focus on something THAT WORKS!
-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

Your just da' man for the job. Get out there in the garage and start doing your mad scientist stuff. When you come up with the next energy source, I'll help you get a patent.

Pile On® said...

Well as long as I am head safety honky, then yes I am against pickling my liver with methanol. I hate the smell of formaldehyde and I never liked dissections. Now, pickling my liver with ethanol, that is another matter.

As safety honky, let me axe you, how many people die every year mining coal? How many people have ever died in the nuclear power industry?

If you want a project, let's vow to build 100 new nuclear reactors in the next ten years. Lets make electricity so plentiful and cheap that we can light every city up like Las Vegas. Then, even though we may not go to the moon, the outline of the US will be visible from the moon.

Anonymous said...

Pile, I'm all for that. You're 100% correct (but electricity won't get THAT cheap!) I just don't think it's gonna happen.
NIMBY, and all that.

-Don Brouhaha

spd rdr said...

I have no quarrel with building additional nuke plants

(The only nuke plant I was ever against was the one that, back in the early 1970's, the Long Island Lighting Company wanted to build on, you guessed it, Long Island. LI is, as you probably surmised, is SURROUNDED BY WATER - and, by the way, home to several million people. The problem is that with only a dozen bridges and tunnels providing exit routes, and those being already clogged on a daily basis beyond belief, any "oops" out there at LILCO would inconvenience millions of people, many of whom pull the levers of capitalism in this nation.

Of course, times have changed, but if you knew LILCO like I knew LILCO, you would understand my reluctance to give that crew anything more radioactive than a glow stick.)

I don't think nukes would go a long way towards cutting pollution and oil consumption caused by motor vehicles, however. Of course, if there was a huge beakthrough in power storage technology, perhaps electric powered vehicles would begin to make sense. Right now, however, the costs (and weight) of electric cars is upside down in terms of power consumption.

camojack said...

That land only LOOKS useless. :)
Just wait until you want to cover it with solar cells, etc. Then you will find out just how valuable it is as 'natural habitat' for endangered species."

Yeah, I knew that...but it's still a good idea, regardless of what the enviro-nazis may say.

KJ said...

Ok, so we have to gut a few environmental laws to save the environment. That is what we are being asked to do in the name of the war on terror as it is (substitute consitution for environmental laws).