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Why Apollo 11’s giant leap gives us hope for climate change today

  • Written by  Simon Kelly
  • Published in Opinions
Why Apollo 11’s giant leap gives us hope for climate change today All images: NASA
25 Jul
What lessons can we learn from the build up and ramifications of one of mankind’s greatest expedition into the unknown?

Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong descended the steps of the lunar module to create the first human imprint on the moon’s surface. To put this achievement into perspective, we had only flown across the Atlantic Ocean 35 years earlier.

As Armstrong lifted his size 9.5 moon-boots and looked back toward Earth, I wonder if it occurred to him to question what kind of footprint we – as a species – are leaving on our own planet. While he almost certainly had more immediate concerns, this is a question we are increasingly asking ourselves half a century on.

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Seen through the eyes of the Apollo program, this question could get you down. Today, we are more reckless in our consumption and more dismissive of our experts; aspiring to Love Island over the Sea of Tranquillity and inspired by political leaders that prefer protecting borders to exploring new frontiers.

In spite of this, I believe that our footprints on the moon offer hope for how we can overcome the biggest challenge facing humanity today – the collective footprint on our own planet.


Where there’s a will there’s a way

The USA interpreted the regular beeping signals of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik One as it orbited the Earth in 1957 – one year before NASA’s creation and 12 years before Apollo 11 – as a crisis. The Americans were a distant second in the space race – a race which President Eisenhower refused to even acknowledge. When President Kennedy announced in 1962 that the USA would choose to go to the moon before the decade was out, it was a giant leap – one built on faith in technology and the ingenuity of his people. This, after all, was only a year after the Soviets had sent the first man – Yuri Gagarin – into space.

When JFK said that we, as humans, ‘choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard’, he meant it. It required a monumental effort – one that NASA compared only to the Panama Canal or the Manhattan Project. There was no consensus that it was a politically wise policy. In fact in 1963, General Eisenhower stated that ‘anybody who would spend $40billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts.’

Fortunately for us (and the US tax payer) he was wrong. The Apollo missions did go ahead and ‘only’ cost $25.4billion – which, according to NASA is approximately £200billion in today’s money.

NASA’s budget peaked in 1966 when it accounted for 4.4 per cent of the federal budget, which compares to 2.67 per cent spent on education and 15.88 per cent on defence in 2016.

Apollo shows that success is not a linear process. As Sputnik orbited the Earth it would seem unimaginable that the US would put a human on the moon just 12 years later, and that in eight years you could create a new agency that would command 4.4 per cent of the National Budget.

When nations sense urgency, accept the challenge and commit to a narrow focus, change can and does happen suddenly and exponentially. If the will is strong enough, a way can be found. To paraphrase JFK, today it is the hazards of climate change, not space, that are hostile to us all.


Common Visions

Fifty years ago it was not just the Americans who celebrated. It is estimated that more than 650 million people watched the Apollo 11 landing on TV – one in every six people on the planet.

This shared success was no accident. It was created through a common vision, one that resonated with our pioneering past. A prime example of this occurred in 1961, as President Kennedy was taking a late night tour of the Space Centre that would one day bear his name. He is reported to have seen a janitor mopping the floors and casually enquired why he was doing so at such a late hour. The janitor responded, ‘I’m not mopping the floor, I’m putting a man on the Moon’.

This response was no anomaly. A study looking into how NASA operated in the 1960s found this belief to be systemic – there were ‘numerous steps to help employees see a stronger connection between their work and NASA’s ultimate aspirations’. Essentially it was a common goal that allowed people to see greater and longer-term meaning in their short-term tasks.

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This was no short order as, at its peak, the Apollo programme employed 400,000 people and required the support of 20,000 industrial firms and universities. What’s more, while at least 70 per cent of Americans watched the Apollo 11 landing, 58 per cent claimed to be opposed to the idea just few years earlier.

NASA showed that it is in everyone’s interest to have a common vision or long-term objective. Organisations of today would do well to remember this. True success is neither built by a leader or a policy, but rather through combined effort and a common purpose. A shared sense of ownership creates an ‘endowment effect’, which naturally makes us more committed and partisan towards the cause.

It’s also worth remembering that consensus doesn’t need to be reached. If you start with those who can make the biggest impact, you can then engage the wider population. Those who do not share, or perhaps understand, the vision do not necessarily have to hinder progress.


It’s helped us discover our planet

‘Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate, sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth … home.’ – Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, sixth person to walk on the Moon.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the age of Apollo was also the dawning of Aquarius and the coming of Silent Spring – released by Rachel Carson in 1962. Today, the climate crisis and environmental activism enjoy unprecedented and prominent media attention. But this was not always the case – they are relatively young movements.

Al Gore is one person who credits the Apollo missions with the movements’ births, which is perhaps summarised best by Neil deGrasse Tyson in We Went to the Moon and We Discovered [the] Earth.

Our discovery began in 1969 with the release of Apollo 8’s photo ‘Earthrise’, which LIFE magazine selected as one of the 100 photographs that changed the world. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it to be ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’, an image that is said to have been the inspiration for the first Earth Day in 1970.

Somewhat fittingly, Apollo 17 signed off by taking yet another of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, ‘The Blue Marble’ – the first complete photograph of the Earth taken by a human.

Astronaut Gene Cernan called it ‘the most beautiful star in the heavens – it’s the one we understand and we know, it’s home, it’s people, family, love, life – and besides that it is beautiful’.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps two pictures are worth a whole movement. Earthrise and the Blue Marble are among the most widely distributed photographs ever and they help emphasise just how precious our planet is.

While the situation remains grim and much is still needed, we are today witnessing greater movement and change. From the early birth of the Club of Rome in 1968 and Greenpeace in 1971, we now have a consensus of scientific thinking, the Extinction Rebellion movement, Greta Thunberg, global agreements made at COP21 and the World Economic Forum citing ‘extreme weather events’ and ‘failure of climate change adaptation and mitigation’ as humanity’s two biggest risks in 2019.

Of course, there are still high-profile leaders who continue to question or undermine the science, but this might be simply be a symptom of their times. Donald Trump, for example, was 23 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. This generation of leaders’ formative years were shaped in the absence of any prominent environmental movement and at a time when business schools were uninterested or unaware of wider ‘corporate responsibility’ requirements. On an optimistic note, it is likely this will change as we seen younger and more enlightened leaders aligned with the scientific consensus. As it was with Earthrise, it is always darkest before the dawn.


A New Hope

It’s fair to say that even fifty years on, one doesn’t have to look hard to find significance in the Apollo missions. It remains a pinnacle of mankind’s achievements. But beyond the obvious, it also serves as a blueprint for how humanity can – and has – overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It tells us that we shouldn’t expect ‘linear’ change and that awareness of our planet’s climate is continually growing. Perhaps the Apollo 11 mission is also the greatest demonstration of what we can accomplish when we buy into a common purpose and work as one to achieve it.

Whether it’s the surly bonds of gravity or financial markets fixated with infinite economic growth, it remains possible that we can slip the status quo and push for a new frontier – a glimpse of divinity. From Blue Marble to Blue Planet, our understanding, awareness and collective desire to act continues to grow

Simon Kelly is the co-founder of Obliquity Group, an organisation that helps corporate entities better understand the sustainable working practices that are required as we deal with the ongoing climate crisis.

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