“If we can put a man on the moon, then we can do this.”

I once heard that about curing the common cold. Today I hear it about capping the BP leak or switching to clean energy. There are lessons from the Apollo program, but that’s not one of them. (More)

Lessons from the Apollo Program

After his speech on the BP disaster last month, some were disappointed that President Obama did not call for an Apollo-like program to transform our energy policy. I agree that we must change our energy policy, and that doing so will require a national commitment. However, the Apollo program is a poor metaphor for changing energy policy. That program offers many lessons, but “If we can put a man on the moon, we can do anything” is not among them.

Forty-one years ago this month, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. It is among the most vivid memories of my childhood. I watched the landing live on television, and that fall my fourth grade classroom had a huge banner with Armstrong’s famous words: One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind. Photos from the space program adorned my classroom walls for the next five years, and I don’t think my teachers were unique.

“Then a miracle occurs.”

PhotobucketFor my generation, the moon landings were and still are symbolic: we can do anything, if we just put our minds to it. That may be true, but for a problem like our nation’s energy policy “if we just put our minds to it” reminds me of this cartoon.

For the vast majority of Americans, the Apollo project was a spectator event. We read about developments in newspapers or watched them on television, and many grumbled about money being spent to go to the moon when there were problems to solve here on earth. Beyond watching and grumbling – and swelling with pride when we watched the grainy images of Apollo 11 – we did nothing. Apollo was a project for NASA and their contractors.

Changing our energy policy is entirely different. It will require 300 million Americans to change our lifestyles. Some of the changes are small: switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, turning off lights when we leave a room, adjusting our thermostats, planning trips more efficiently. Some changes are larger: buying more energy efficient cars and appliances, upgrading home insulation, shopping for local foods, or planting our own gardens. Some changes are larger yet: using carpools or mass transit rather than driving alone, or refitting our homes for solar or wind power We have the technologies for most of those changes, but many are expensive or at least inconvenient. Doing them requires us to adapt our budgets – both money and time – and to adjust our expectations.

Putting our minds to that is difficult even for one person or one family. For an entire nation – 300 million people in different climates and with different needs and wants – the difficulty of putting our minds to it rises exponentially. It won’t be a miracle, but the Apollo project was easy by comparison. Changing our energy policy will require us to change our values.

Valuing robustness over efficiency.

For me the biggest lesson of the Apollo program was the value of robustness over efficiency. From ships and ground support facilities to staffing and training, systems were designed with layers of redundancy and reserves. When a flight went smoothly, those extra resources seemed like waste. But when something went wrong, as it did with Apollo 13, those extra resources proved essential.

On board the ship, extra copies of the flight plan, plastic bags, duct tape, and other spare bits enabled the astronauts to connect CO2 scrubbers built for the crippled command module into the differently-shaped vents of the lunar module that had become their lifeboat. A team of flight engineers on the ground spent hours figuring out how to make that work, and they could do that because there were other engineers available to perform the other tasks. It was one of many examples on that mission where redundancies and reserves saved lives.

Redundancy and reserves are common characteristics of robust systems. They’re also inefficient. Had the Apollo program been a for-profit enterprise, many of those redundancies and reserves might not have existed. Indeed many of the problems we face – from the market collapse of 2008 to continuing unemployment to the BP oil disaster – were failures of a common origin. In each case, decision-makers spurned redundancy and reserves in favor of more profitable efficiency. In each case, when something went wrong the systems failed catastrophically.

Redundancy and reserves will also characterize a robust solution to energy. It will not be One Big Solution, some breakthrough technology that allows all of us to go on as we have gone before. Reducing our carbon output and energy usage to sustainable levels will require hundreds or thousands of small solutions, none of which is enough individually … and all of which together will seem more than is necessary.

That last part will be dangerous, as those seeking maximum efficiency will say we no longer need to do this or that. We can get by with just these other changes, they will tell us, if we’re efficient enough. Maybe we could, if nothing went wrong. Meanwhile, back in Realworldia….

Learning to value robustness over efficiency will not be as easy as getting to the moon. To build a sustainable society, we’ll have to put our minds to it. That’s not quite a miracle, but it’s damn close.


Happy Friday!