One Small Step for Man, One Giant Analogy for Innovation

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Moonrise.jpg

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.

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The footprint seen round the world. 


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

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

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, 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 Wired.com, 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.

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