Rock star astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Daily Show last week to plug his new book, Space Chronicles, which muses on the future of space travel while reflecting on lessons learned from the now half-century-old Space Race. (John Glenn’s historic orbital flight was fifty years ago last week.) Tyson reminds Jon Stewart that the Cold War motivated Americans to shoot for the Moon. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, built from a hollowed-out intercontinental ballistic missile, the image of war in space sent us in a panic, but it also spurred our imagination: “It galvanized us all to dream about tomorrow,” Tyson recalls. “To think about the homes of tomorrow; the cities of tomorrow; the food of tomorrow. Everything was Futureworld, Futureland. The World’s Fair—all this was focused on enabling people to make tomorrow come. That was a cultural mindset that the space program brought upon us, and we reap the benefits of economic growth because you had people wanting to become scientists and engineers—who are the people who enable tomorrow to exist today.”
As Tyson told the Huffington Post this week, “When a nation dreams big, its citizenry dreams big.”
Today, however, this ambition has all but died, because there’s no sense of urgency or competition. 2012 is the first year in three decades that NASA won’t launch a manned space vehicle. But if China decided to head for Mars, Tyson claims, America would be there in two years.
Tyson’s words apply just as well to the sustainability movement as they do to the Space Race. Today we desperately need an audacious call to arms if we hope to make significant progress. Zero waste by 2020! Zero emissions by 2030! If China decided to go 100% renewable in ten years, we’d be there in eight. We don’t lack the technology or in the intelligence to achieve these goals; we lack the motivation.
Shoot for Mars.