Lessons from the Lunar Leftovers


All week I've been stewing on the connection between landing on the moon and solving our climate, pollution, economic and security problems with fossil fuels. The two metaphors used for government initiatives are the Apollo Project and the Manhattan Project. The problem is that both the Apollo and the Manhattan Projects had clear goals (rocket/moon; atoms/bomb) while there is no clear goal or path to a single energy solution, but a need for many, and also a need for a marketplace robust enough to pick the winners among those solutions.

But then I happened upon the site NASA Spinoffs, which details thousands of things that were originally invented for the space program but have now become products in their own right. Many of these things relate to energy: More than a dozen solar innovations, a process for making trucks more aerodynamic, sophisticated wraps that trap heat in buildings, lithium batteries.. And then there's space food, temper foam, etc. Putting a man on the moon was only a midpoint in a massive push in basic science and applied technology, followed by a multi-decade process of commercialization. We need to ask ourselves whether we're going to get innovation on that scale from the fairly small investments we're currently making in alternative energy. (Here's a chart of what the DOE is doing with stimulus money.)

We also need to ask whether we're putting money into projects that are too focussed on goals like biofuels to create the kind of bizarre creative spinoffs that history shows are possible and useful. The DOE has funded a group of Bioenergy Research Centers to search for cellulosic fuel solutions "at the frontier of basic and applied science." Will they be too focussed on the narrow goal of a possibly unsuccessful fuel to realize that they just stumbled across, say, an enzyme that will clean your clothes with barely any water or energy? (Saving the world an enormous amount of fuel and hassle.) And will giving loans to limited private initiatives (like the nearly half a billion dollars recently loaned to Tesla) result in intellectual property that everyone can share and innovate from? Looking at the NASA spinoffs page I think we took the wrong lessons from the Apollo Program: Its greatest success wasn't the giant step for mankind, it was hundreds of thousands of baby steps and quirky products.

If you'd like to comment, you can make use of the commercialized version of DARPA's quirky 1970's online community  by posting on Steven Chu's Facebook page.

(Photo: Flickr User Brian Knight Photography)