To The Moon And Back

On September 12th 1962 John F Kennedy, then President of the United States, gave one of his most famous speeches.

He stood in front of 35,000 people at Rice University football stadium and said:

“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 we intend to win…”

The story of this speech and the subsequent successful moon landing in July 1969 can be told from two perspectives.

The poetic version is that Kennedy understood the morale-boosting power of being the first nation to put someone on the face of the moon. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of superiority.

He also understood that such a venture would open doors to the development of new technologies which would in turn benefit humankind for years to come. It would inspire a whole generation of people by demonstrating the power of technology combined with human ambition. If we could put a footprint on the moon, what couldn't we achieve?

The more cynical version (although no less truthful) is that the US had been losing ground to the USSR for years. The Soviets had been the first to put an artificial satellite into space 4 years earlier (Sputnik) and just a year ago in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin had completed his historic round trip - up into space and safely back down again. So it was as much a game of thrones as anything else.

I’d love to have seen the reaction to this speech had he given it in the age of social media (actually, I probably wouldn't).

I imagine it would be similar to what I witnessed this morning, reading people’s responses on twitter to the news that the British government want no new petrol and diesel cars on the roads by 2040.

Blink and you’ll miss the importance of this statement. Let me paraphrase so we're all clear on what was just announced. The British government wants to eradicate the use of fossil fuel burning vehicles from our roads in the next 25 years.

This has to be the first nail in the coffin of the internal combustion engine (a British invention no less) - and the driving force behind the industrial revolution. And that’s quite something.

The news was greeted, as you might imagine, with mixed responses:

Some positive

Some not so positive

Some making good points

Some who just want to watch the world burn

A lot of people don't like change.

Kennedy embarked on a controversial goal which used taxpayers money to put people on the face of a deserted, unihabitable, freezing landscape almost 240,000 miles away. And for what? The space programme would cost each US tax payer 40 cents per year (to the sum of $25.4 billion or $93 billion today). That's 40 cents per person, per year that wasn't being spent on schools, roads and hospitals. Kennedy saw the bigger picture.

It's only a matter of time before fossil fuels are replaced by renewables. It has to happen. It will happen, if only for the deeply prosaic reason that there's a finite amount of the former.

Change is as inevitable as the rising of the moon.

Yes, there are problems to be solved and questions to be answered but how can an end to fossil fuel burning vehicles be greeted by anything other than applause? We all share this one fragile world. It should be a primary goal of our existence to protect it for future generations.

Let's not forget the benefits of setting our sights on a higher goal and achieving what might seem impossible. It's been done before. It can, and will, happen again. Human beings rise to the occassion.

As Kennedy put it, in a less often quoted part of the same speech he gave in 1962:

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man…”