over the past few years, there have been great advances in space exploration. where is the same determination to combat climate change? is it possible to discover more about our universe while protecting the planet we live on?
When American President John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, he faced a slew of challenges: fear of communism’s spread across the world, the fight for civil rights, the ever-present threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the onset of the Vietnam War. Any one of these issues in isolation would have been enough to completely occupy a president’s agenda. But in May 1961, less than six months after his inauguration, he called on the country during a speech to both sessions of Congress to make what was arguably the biggest and most exciting commitment that any president had ever made: to put a man on the moon — and get him back safely — by the end of the decade.
Kennedy was not naïve. He knew how difficult, time-intensive and expensive this venture would be, and he knew that he might not be president when it was accomplished, which he was not. “I believe we should go to the moon,” he said. “But I think every citizen of this country as the Members of Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment […] because it is a heavy burden.” It was by no means an easy task, but Kennedy was sure it would be worthwhile, and it would be possible if the rest of the government and the country were willing to throw their full weight behind it.
This renewed commitment and enthusiasm for space exploration, however, begs the question: why are we not giving the same amount of time, effort and resources towards finding solutions towards climate change, which is jeopardising our own planet?
Sixty years later, there has been much renewed interest in space exploration. Just last year we witnessed the successful SpaceX mission, which sent Americans into space from American soil for the first time since NASA decommissioned the space shuttle programme in 2011. According to the Tampa Bay Times, SpaceX sent thirty-one missions to space in 2020 alone, surpassing the previous record set in 1966, which was three years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969. Both former President Trump and President Biden have supported the creation of the Space Force, which provides security for American commerce and other activities in space, and the Artemis programme.
This programme has the aim of sending mankind back to the moon by 2024 and ensuring equal gender representation this time by having women on the mission. The Biden administration — along with the Obama and Trump administrations — has also expressed hope for reaching Mars as well as other moons in our solar system. This renewed commitment and enthusiasm for space exploration, however, begs the question: why are we not giving the same amount of time, effort and resources towards finding solutions towards climate change, which is jeopardising our own planet?
Scientists say that global carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, which would significantly help humanity avert the worst of the climate crisis. Nine years is not a long time, and it does not feel like nearly enough time to dramatically lower our carbon dioxide emissions, especially given how slow action has been on tackling climate change, particularly in the United States. When Kennedy made his speech to Congress, he gave himself and the country nine years to get to the moon — and they did it. Clearly, it’s possible to make unbelievably grand promises and keep them when concentrated effort is given. Kennedy thought going to the moon was necessary in 1961 in order to combat the Soviets’ outpacing the Americans in the ‘Space Race’ and to further our understanding of Earth and our solar system. If such unprecedented action was called for then, it definitely is now.
Kennedy thought going to the moon was necessary in 1961 in order to combat the Soviets’ outpacing the Americans in the ‘Space Race’ and to further our understanding of Earth and our solar system. If such unprecedented action was called for then, it definitely is now.
It is possible to do both — to continue space exploration and find tangible solutions for climate change. We do not need to choose, but we do have to prioritise action on climate change. Fortunately, President Biden has made clear that climate change is one of his top priorities, calling it an ‘existential threat’. He can also direct NASA to focus their efforts even more on preventing and mitigating the effects of climate change by utilising space technology. Currently, NASA employs satellites to study and study the drivers of environmental disasters, like famines and rising sea levels, while also evaluating what humans could do to minimise the damage done to the environment. Moriba Jah at CNN says that Biden could further use NASA’s tools to research clean energy solutions and aviation as well, and Jah notes that much of the data currently used to monitor and assess climate change are collected from space-based assets.
That is not to say that space exploration is completely taking the back seat. Biden is also expected to continue space exploration during his term, though it is not one of his top issues like climate change is. Another former NASA administrator who had endorsed Biden’s campaign told Politico that Biden was uniquely qualified to push for greater international cooperation on space exploration. This is probably due to Biden’s history of bipartisanship and his relationships with other world leaders. This would be in the spirit of Kennedy’s belief that space exploration would be an advance and benefit for all of mankind. Strong, decisive, international action that Biden takes on climate change will also be a benefit for all mankind as well. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural speech that Americans should not ask what the country could do for them, ‘but what you can do for your country.’ In this moment, we have to ask what we can do for the planet and not what the planet can do for us, as it continues to do more than enough.
Art by Oliver Walter