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.