Too many of my previous posts have been downers, so enjoy some inspiration for today.
Fifty-one years ago today, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University justifying why sending an American astronaut to the moon before the end of that decade was so important. The accomplishments of the Apollo program culminating in Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk in 1969 still represent the acme of human scientific and engineering achievement. It was a goal that all of America looked toward during the process. It is a feat that we still look back on and point and say, “We did this together.” This preposterous, impossible thing. We made it possible. Then we checked it off our to-do list.
“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.”
Of course there were reservations about the technology we had to tame to get us there, but the promise of progress was greater than the risk of inaction. These same principles still apply to many of our current scientific endeavors from genetic engineering in our food supply, novel medical treatments, and alternative energy strategies.
“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, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
The technology is just technology. The only meaning it has is the one we give to it. The only purpose it has it what we use it for. The real problem lies not with the science or technology, but within us. To quote another president, we must rely on the better angels of our nature to ensure progress instead of self-destruction.
The legacy of our voyage to the moon and space exploration beyond is not a Jetsonian future in which we are all astronauts. However, there has been plenty of useful technology spawned by NASA research and engineering that you use in your daily lives, the majority of which could not have been anticipated from the inception of our moon goal. These include: CAT scanner, cordless tools, ear thermometer, invisible braces, joysticks, memory foam, water filters, shoe insoles and scratch-resistant lenses. What innovation are we missing out on as a result of setting mediocre goals instead of audacious ones?
I think it’s time for another “call to the moon” moment in science. There’s plenty of worthy causes to select.
We choose a sustainable energy future.
We choose global food security.
We choose cures for our chronic illnesses.
Of course, the choice is dependent on a fair amount of collective investment. The moon would never have been possible without the full support of the government and the American people. Today’s challenges are no different. Except that they are somewhat more nebulous. All JFK had to do was point at the night sky and everyone knew what he meant. Our modern challenges don’t have easy targets. This is why scientists must advocate for their research areas and reach out to the public about their significance. We are living in a time where support for science is being tempered instead of intensified. These are all obstacles to our current impossible tasks. Let’s not make them excuses. There will always be a million reasons why something can’t be done. We need vocal unwavering visionaries for our current challenges to say
“But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.”
What do you choose? Is it difficult enough to challenge the best of your energies and skills?