One Small Step for Man, One Giant Analogy for Innovation


Forty-one years ago today, humans set foot on the moon for the first time. Neil Armstrong left a footprint in the dust, and said, "This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Interestingly, he went off script for that remark. He meant to say, "This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." (I think we're all thankful for the flub.)

This post is really about great space photos, but allow me a quick digression into the outsized role Apollo now plays in energy policy, mostly due to that glorious moment four decades ago.

Apollo is the analog of choice for any field in science and technology that proponents think needs a big boost in funding. We apparently need an Apollo project for everything, most especially energy. The impulse to draw the link to Apollo is understandable. NASA was incredibly successful at boosting its budget during the program's early days. And while there was fierce opposition to Apollo (aka "the moondoggle") before its completion, the success of the missions erased most of it.

Energy R&D, particularly for non-nuclear technologies, has historically been underfunded, so most energy experts think it makes sense to increase that budget, perhaps to $15 billion a year (or 0.1% of GDP). By drawing the link with a proud moment in American history, some groups think clean energy advocates can gather political momentum.

But the Apollo analogy just doesn't fit our energy situation, in my mind, not least because we wouldn't want energy R&D to turn out the way Apollo did: the program was canceled before it could finish its docket of flights.

More deeply, Apollo just had to get some guys to the moon. It didn't have to change Earth (though some would argue it did). Put it this way: Apollo barely left a mark on the moon, while a clean energy R&D program would have the goal of changing the way everyone on Earth does everything. So, I lean towards the group of policy people like Butler economist Peter Grossman who think that the rhetoric of Apollo has "political benefits but" ultimately is "detrimental to the adoption of potentially effective energy policies."

In any case, more on that another time. Today, we can just reflect on why Apollo has political cache. It was a wondrous thing getting to the Moon (and beating the Russians to boot!) and NASA savvily made sure it was very well-documented. Enjoy. According to NASA, all these photos were taken exactly 41 years ago on July 20, 1969.

Images: NASA.


The footprint seen round the world. 

Buzz Aldrin and flag.jpgBuzz Aldrin posing for a photograph with the American flag on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin in his space suit. Make sure to check out the awesome reflection off his helmet.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

Just In