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Invoking the word, moonshot stirs up emotions - often detached from reality hence why it’s so appealing the the usuals: politicians, bureaucrats, religious cultists, and corporate journalists.
Any highly ambitious, groundbreaking, [insert cliché platitude here], or even moral endeavor seems to requires a moonshot effort these days.
With that one simple word, and enough of other people’s money of course, a desired goal should / could / would / oughta be achieved.
Here are some recent examples.
“No, we're going to have to free ourselves from the dependence we have on fossil fuels and that means a greater investment in solar and wind. ... Again, we're making progress in this country, but so are other countries. And I want us to win that race. We've called for ... an investment commensurate with John F. Kennedy's moonshot. We're going to invest in the technologies that will allow us to lead the world on this. It should be happening right here in the United States.”
“We need fearless innovation to bring down the costs of batteries, to commercialize carbon capture, to make blue and green hydrogen market ready, and perhaps most of all, we need a mindset that overcomes resistance to change. Many are stuck on the status quo. This is our generation’s moonshot. Less than a decade after Kennedy declared our nation’s choice to go to the moon we planted an American flag on that cratered surface, and today we choose to solve the climate crisis.”
“It is time for all of us to accept that climate change is the challenge of our time. It may be a moon shot — but it’s the only shot we’ve got.”
In one case, moonshot is even taken quite literally. In The_Byte’s Scientists Unveil Plan To Mount Cannons on the Moon to Fight Climate Change
a screenplay for a Michael Bay film an academic paper is discussed insisting it’s possible to alleviate the climate crisis by mounting a massive dust shooting canon on the moon to block some of the sunlight that hits the moon.
What exactly is the deal with the term moonshot anyways?
Google’s Ngram viewer, which indexes the words out of various publications up until the year 2019 shows the word moonshot seeing a notable increase in use during the 1960s, peaking in somewhere around 1971 or 1972, and declining ever since. All of the quotes cited previously occurred after 2019 for which Google has no data.
Moonshot is absent from the Online Etymology Dictionary.
But Moonshot has a heavily cultural influence, from none other, of course than the Space Race in the latter half of the 20th century and in particular the endeavor carried out by the USA to place a man on the moon.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower chose T. Keith Glennan to be the Administrator of the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. Glennan was the man for the job as he’d overseen NASA’s predecessor - the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Early that next year in an address to Congress, Glennan informed them that - assuming Congress would provide his new agency with the appropriate budget - there would be a good chance that within ten years his new agency would send a manned crew into outer space, outside the earth’s orbit and around the moon.
This is a preposterous ambition at the time.
Only two years earlier the Soviets threw the first satellite into outer space Sputnik 1 - something roughly the size of a beach ball with several protruding antennas. The only living things thrown near or into space were various animals who hitched rides from Nazi V2 rockets captured by the US - which carried fruit flies, rodents, cats, dogs, and monkeys in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the late 1950s it was still mostly dogs and monkeys being launched into by both the Americans and the Soviets to varying degrees of success. The first human didn’t enter space until April 1961 with Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin delivering yet more bragging rights for the USSR in what had become the fully-accelerated Space Race. Less than one month later, the US sent their first astronaut into space, Alan Shepard.
A month after Gagarin’s 1 hour 48 minute spaceflight propelling him (pun intended) as the first human in space, US President John F. Kennedy made his infamous speech hilariously but also appropriately titled "Urgent National Needs" in front of Congress with a claim even more preposterous as Glennan’s claim.
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...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish...”
US President John F. Kennedy, May 1961
Later in an address to Rice University, Kennedy continued the emotionally appealing motivational speech with, "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." NASA’s two year old program and third designated for human spaceflight mission - Project Apollo - was designated as being the program that would carry out Kennedy’s desire.
Apollo did not get off to the greatest start. First of all its main ideological pusher, JFK himself, was assassinated in 1963. Then later the very first crewed mission, Apollo 1, resulted in a fire during launch rehearsal killing all three of its crewmen Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. Domestically, the there was much unrest across the country from pushback against the Civil Rights movement, the “Great Society” and the Vietnam War. The project was scrutinized heavily by ideologues on all sides of the political spectrum for being a moondoggle as not everybody was on board with the Federal Government spending so much money on what they considered to be a wasteful vanity project to fulfil the dream of a dead president or to own the commies.
But the Apollo project did chug along nevertheless.
While residents of the Northern Hemisphere were experiencing Winter Solstice in 1968, three American astronauts under Apollo 8, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders left earth’s orbit for the first time and circled the moon a total of ten times. Glennan’s dream was achieved more or lesss within the ten year time span. Several months later, on July 20th 1969, President Kennedy’s goal was achieved when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. American astronauts landed on the moon four other times (Apollo 13 did not make it to the lunar surface) within the next four years. After these few return trips, the Apollo project was canceled and NASA’s focus emphasized more on other missions including the research and development for a reusable space ship (the Space Shuttle), the Skylab space station, and unmanned exploratory probes such as the Voyager spacecraft.
The term moonshot has been in our lexicon ever since and Kennedy’s speeches are cited as glorified motivational messages carrying out the typical American “can do anything” attitude. Of course too it involves some Benjamins.
It was surprisingly difficult to get a hard figure for the total cost of the NASA’s Project Apollo, which ran from 1960 to 1973, but The Planetary Society put together some figures. That total over the course of the entire run of the project: $280 billion 2020 dollars. Thanks to the largest expansion of the parasites, er I mean, the supply of the US dollar in its history that figure in current (2023) dollars is: $323 billion.
Christopher Cooper attempted a similar exercise spanning from the start the Apollo Program to the point where the first moon landing was done - thus achieving the actual goal itself.
He came up with $194 billion in 2020 dollars - or $224 billion in 2023 dollars. Cooper’s figure may as well though, be the cost of the moonshot itself- the rest is just victory laps - hence the total cost of the project per The Planetary Society being greater. Cooper’s exercise took one step into attempting to conceptualize these large numbers in a way the rest of us can understand - by using percentages. We took it a step further by making it even (hopefully easier) by converting his number to multiples.
He estimated that the F-22 Raptor program for example (which ran notoriously overbudget multiple times) cost roughtly half of the Apollo program.
One only needed to listen to President Eisenhower’s infamous “Military Industrial Complex” speech, which epitomizes everything wrong with the F-22 Raptor program can be viewed online for free and only takes a few minutes.
Just one year of interest on the US Debt, when he calculated these figures all the back in 2008, was nearly twice the cost of the Apollo program. Imagine what it would be now!
Cooper further continues with some other comparisons:
Cost to build the US Interstate Highway System: 3 times more.
Vietnam War: 4.3 times.
The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (aka, the original bailouts from the Great Financial Crisis): 4.3 times.
The Forever Wars (Iraq & Afghanistan) through 2020: 20 times.
GLF Exclusive Figures, all using 2023 adjusted dollars:
CARES Act: 10.5 times
Paycheck Protection Plan (part of the CARES Act): 4.9 times
American Rescue Plan Act of 2021: 9.4 times
2021 Annual Spend on new “renewable energy” projects: 2.6 times
Renewable energy, which is suggested as only part of the solving the climate crisis solution provides something approximating 2 to 3 % of the world’s energy and that includes all the investments in these sectors prior to 2021. The rest is hydrocarbons or nuclear.
On the face it seems absurd that the Apollo Project, which ultimately sent a handful of men to land on the moon for a few hours a few times (while an utterly impressive feat, no doubt - however grounded in actual physics) is anything comparable to even the most charitable and sensible endeavors to fix, address, reverse, end, [insert verb here] the constantly changing and evolving problem of climate change.
It’s almost as if there is a perfect word to describe such a thing: lunacy.