Issue 12 - Letter from the Editor

New Frontiers

By Mark Spellun

IT COST A LOT OF MONEY—over $100 billion in today’s dollars—to get a man on the moon. The Apollo space program could never be justified in a cost-benefit analysis, but that’s not to say nothing good came out of it. Quite simply, it cast our planet in a whole new light. The image of Earth from space captured by Apollo 17, the last of the moon missions, became an icon of the early environmental movement; photos of Earth floating in a sea of darkness appeared on posters, buttons, and banners, often bearing the tagline “It’s the only one we’ve got.”

The urge to explore new frontiers is still ingrained in our culture. It wasn’t long ago that George W. Bush suggested creating a colony on Mars, and Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, recently founded Virgin Galactic, which promises to take passengers into low earth orbit for a mere $200,000 (carbon offsets not included). But just because lot of people like the idea of exploring the solar system, that doesn’t mean we should invest huge sums of taxpayer dollars do it. Why not spend the money on an Apollo-style program for the environment instead? A group called the Apollo Alliance ( has already called for such effort, arguing that a multifaceted research agenda to achieve energy independence would create three million new jobs in the U.S.; they hope to accomplish this in a decade. And recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for a “new Manhattan Project” to develop alternative fuels and subsidize mass transit.

These ideas, though far-reaching, are signs that consensus building for a large-scale national program to develop sustainable energy sources. Sobering events like Hurricane Katrina and constant reminders like high gas prices have permanently changed our perspective on the natural world; these days, more and more people realize that our environmental problems aren’t going to simply disappear. A major national research effort is the most logical way to ensure that we can face future environmental challenges with confidence and an action plan, instead of resorting to fear and finger-pointing.

Obviously, we will need a lasting national commitment to clear the technical hurdles that currently prevent us from developing alternative energy strategies. But, as the Apollo mission and the Manhattan Project proved, hurdles can be cleared when the desire is strong enough.

There might not be any more faraway frontiers to explore now that we’ve been to the moon and Mars, but maybe that’s a good thing—there are certainly plenty of problems to solve here on Earth. Perhaps in time we can replace that earlier iconic image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag on the moon—an image that became symbolic of man’s mastery over nature—with an image that indicates our respect for the earth instead (but don’t worry, we’re not saying we should plant trees on the moon, as our tongue-in-cheek cover suggests). In the long haul, making our world a sustainable place for future generations will be a more impressive and important accomplishment than walking on the moon was nearly forty years ago.

Issue 25

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