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Climate Change and U.S. Ingenuity: Inspiration from the Space Race and the Manhattan Project

I will be the first to admit that I have, shall we say, a conflicted relationship with my own country. I get frustrated, upset, and even angry when I see progress and achievement in other parts of the world that I don’t see here. Nowhere is that more evident than with climate change today.  But my frustration lies in the fact that I love my country and am so proud of it in so many ways.

When I have asked immigrants why they left and came to the US, I am continuously met with the response that America is still the land of opportunity, where the sky is the limit. There is still a “can do” attitude, as opposed to say, England, where my English friends all agree, any innovative or visionary idea is immediately met with “you can’t do that…”

On the eve of my visit with my family to Kennedy Space Center, I was speaking with an Australian friend who had visited the Center and was amazed. I was curious why he was so blown away. My perspective is not the best as I grew up in Washington DC and visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is one of my earliest memories. From my childhood years into early adulthood, I routinely passed by the home of icons from the Aviation Age to the Space Race without thinking much about it. But my Aussie friend opened my eyes a little bit by explaining that so often there are major American technologies, cultural trends, music, sports etc., that so heavily influence the rest of the world, and the Kennedy Space Center embodies that all in one relatively small area. It is an homage to the American belief that we can accomplish literally anything if we put our mind to it.

So with that perspective in mind, my mind too was a little bit more blown by the Kennedy Space Center. It helped that the Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit is now there. When I was growing up, the Apollo missions were history, something that happened before my memory of time. But the Space Shuttle – that was different. I lived it. I did my 5th grade report on the first shuttle mission, and got autographed pictures from the astronauts (still have that, thank you Robert Crippen). To see all of that in person, and to learn more about the history of that program with an adult perspective of time and achievement did overwhelm me in a new way.

One of the aspects of both the Apollo mission to the moon and then the development of the Space Shuttle that really came to light for me was what a short time line was achieved for both. In less than 10 years, we put a man on the moon, and in about the same amount of time, we developed a reusable spaceship that could launch like a rocket and land like a plane.

It is in thinking about that timeline that I was reminded of a presentation I had seen in Denver in 2006 at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild Conference. Ira Magaziner of the Clinton Foundation was discussing the Clinton Foundation’s goal of addressing climate change. He said then that we had 10 years to bend the curve. Then he translated that to days. 3,650 days. When you take a number and change it to days, you realize that every day matters. We are now well past Ira’s initial 3,650 days and still there has been little definitive, quantifiable progress made on this matter by our country.  And in light of withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, it is arguable that we have gone backwards (the US is now the only country in the world to not be in on Paris).  In the same amount of time it took to send a man to the moon and develop the most innovative space vehicle ever conceived, our country has basically done nothing to address a far more urgent and compelling problem.

And in another feat of unimaginable progress that has in some ways been forgotten, I recently was reminded of the magnitude of the achievements of the Manhattan Project.  In a matter of just a few years, scientists from all over the United States joined efforts to develop something in physics that only a few years prior was literally barely conceivable.  The recent commemorations of that in the science world suggest that a large reason for that achievement was the collaboration of scientists all over the country, and the unification of that effort under the Manhattan Project.  Indeed commentators suggest that program reshaped the way science was approached in this country and the modern world.  Regardless of your opinion of nuclear weapons, the magnitude of that achievement is indisputable.

History has clearly shown that our country has the ingenuity, energy, persistence, and culture to accomplish amazing feats. And yet, when we are facing such huge challenges, we often do not meet them with our abilities. It is like watching a child who has so much potential consistently under achieve. There are flashes of brilliance, but it isn’t consistently sustained. I submit that if our country could accomplish as much as it did in the space program between the years of 1960 and 1980, or the Manhattan Project between 1942 and 1945, that we could have made a far greater contribution to the collective solution of climate change facing the world than we have up to this point. I also submit that despite the missed opportunity, it is now time for us as a country to once again join in a common goal and make ourselves and our children proud of our nation and our ability to unify in pursuit of a daunting, and overwhelming goal.  Indeed it is that sort of challenge which has time and time again defined who we are as a people and a nation.

Napoleon Hill in his classic Think and Grow Rich once noted, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”  The Space Race and Manhattan Project are perfect examples of this principle in action in our great country.  There is no doubt in my mind that with the right mindset and goals, we can make huge strides towards turning the tide on climate change.  It is well past time to “conceive and believe” in a solution and get to work.

Joe Snider is an architect, speaker, and author and owner of Joe Snider Consulting, a consulting firm that provides a full suite of sustainability consulting services to guide organizations to incorporate their sustainability missions into policies and daily practices. Joe Snider has been awarded the prestigious LEED Fellow status by the U.S. Green Building Council.