What Apollo 11 and the Climate Crisis have in Common — and What They Don’t

Apollo 11 mission lands on the Moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong is shown next to U.S. flag.

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Hixon Center Director

Fifty years ago this month American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on the moon—the magnificent and beautiful culmination of years of work by countless men and women, who made groundbreaking advances in science and engineering and, through their dedication and willpower, succeeded in putting men into outer space.

John F. Kennedy’s declaration to Congress on May 25, 1961 to land “a man on the Moon by the end of this decade and returning him safely to the Earth,” was so much more than a call for the advancement of aerospace engineering, it was a motivational call to action at the height of the Cold War and during a period of intense internal turmoil caused by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. When these domestic and foreign policy challenges seemed insurmountable, Kennedy wanted to remind the Nation of its unbreakable pioneer spirit that had faced and conquered frontiers throughout its history. Giving the quest a sense of urgency and destiny, he rallied Americans around the notion that they have the freedom to choose their destiny.

Now, fifty years later we are living again in highly volatile times and are facing a growing climate crisis, while remaining deeply divided along party lines on how to deal with it. Again, we need to harness science and engineering to develop technological solutions that do not yet exist. Again, America needs to step up and show the World that progress is possible, and can be realized faster when pursued collectively. If we took Apollo 11 and the Apollo Space Program as a blueprint for combating the climate crisis, I dare say that we would be a lot farther along towards solving it.

The Apollo 11 Mission was the successful outcome of the Apollo Program—NASA’s 3rd human spaceflight program (following the Mercury and Gemini Programs)—which cost an estimated $25.4 billion. That seems to be a relatively small sum, but in 1965 America’s GDP was $744 billion and the program thus represented 3.4% of a single year’s GDP. Since then, GDP has soared to $20 trillion, so 3.4% would represent $680 billion today. Imagine the U.S. Government dedicating $680 billion in domestic spending to a concerted effort to fight climate change! Such a sum would go a long way towards reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, the keywords are “dedicated” and “concerted effort.” It turns out that the Federal Government cannot actually tell you how much it is spending on climate-related activities. Thus, while Apollo was a bit of a ‘moonshot’ (pun intended) aimed at uniting and uplifting the country’s divided and worried populace and awing America’s enemies, climate change is an actual existential threat and yet, governmental responses are uncoordinated, unfocused, and counter-effective (just think of the excellent work being done on renewable energy at NREL and the subsidies continuing to flow to fossil energy—all paid for with taxpayer dollars). Nobody knows exactly, how much is spent overall. A 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the federal government spent at least $154 billion between 1993-2017, but as much as 94% of that money did not even directly benefit combating climate change.

Of course, climate change is also a highly politicized issue in the U.S. with 67% of Democrat and Democrat-leaning Independents considering it a top issue but only 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents agreeing. This and the current Administration’s stance on climate change mean that a concerted call to action such as President Kennedy’s in 1961 is unlikely anytime soon. On the other hand, climate-related disasters are increasing in frequency and severity, and a growing number of ecosystems—from coral reefs to glaciers, and the West Antarctic ice shield—are on the verge of collapse. At the same time, extreme droughts, prolonged heat waves, and changing monsoon patterns are creating social unrest and migration, leading to new volatile situations that governments are ill prepared for.

Yes, it is easy to be disheartened by the negative climate stories that we hear, read about, and experience day after day. We might be wondering how we managed to land two men on the Moon but cannot solve our environmental problems on our home planet. So I was positively surprised when the Editorial Board of centrist newspaper USA Today put out an editorial calling for repeating the Apollo 11 miracle and making the fight against climate change a goal to rally around. The Editors at USA Today are not naïve and understand the political realities on the ground, but they also correctly state that “[i]f Apollo showed us one thing, it is that America can succeed in solving complex problems. We have one right now, and we can’t afford to ignore it. The priority isn’t to send a human to another planet; it’s to save the only one we call home.”

So, as climate change is morphing into a climate crisis, maybe there is still a chance to turn things around and avert its worst impacts.