The Apollo program, which culminated 50 years ago this week with the moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, was an almost unbelievable success on multiple levels.
As a contest of sorts between the United States and the Soviet Union, it showed the power of democratic societies and free enterprise.
As a grand spectacle, it gave Americans a reason to be proud of their country at a time when the nation was embroiled in a cruel and divisive war in Vietnam.
And as an exercise in problem solving, it gave young people a reason for pursuing careers in science and engineering.
The triumph of the Apollo program has often been cited by NASA backers as a rationale for return trips to the moon and other spending on human space exploration. Perhaps there is merit to their arguments. But human space missions have been held back by a variety of factors, including the fact that much of what hasn’t been done already would come at enormous cost.
A better approach when applying the lessons of Apollo is an expansive one.
If there is a great scientific and engineering puzzle that needs to be solved now, it is climate change. The same combination of determination and smarts that landed men on the moon can, and must, be deployed to avert the catastrophe of rising sea levels, extreme weather and other disastrous effects of the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The United States generally allows free enterprise and innovation to solve problems, sometimes in unexpected ways.
There are exceptions, mostly, but not exclusively, at times of war. In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade, there was no national security imperative to the mission. Nor was there any guarantee of a success.
Kennedy, however, sensed that a nation made uneasy in the nuclear age and troubled by communism’s advance on the ground and in the skies, needed a program to rally around.
The case for such a program now is even greater, because climate change truly is a national security threat.
Such a mission would, by necessity, involve putting resources into a variety of areas: advanced batteries for both vehicles and large-scale storage of electricity, carbon capture, solar arrays and nuclear energy. It would involve putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. It would involve many failures as well as successes. And it would involve sharing America's technological breakthroughs with the rest of the world, because global warming requires an international response.
One of the bigger challenges would be in creating metrics of success. With climate change there will be no singular, giant-leap moment. Instead, targets for global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will have to be set, met and celebrated.
If 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.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: We sent a man to the moon. Now let's save our planet: Our view