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October 26, 2006
Is It Time For A Moon Shot On Energy?

On May 25th, 1961, President John Kennedy told the nation that America would go to the moon. The Soviet Union had beaten the US to space, launching its Sputnik satellite in 1957 and stunning Americans, who thought of the USSR as a backwards Asian nation. One month before this joint session of Congress, the Soviets beat us again, sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April as the first man in space and the first to orbit the earth. Alan Shepard only made it to suborbital space three weeks before this speech, a sterling achievement but a disappointment after Gagarin's mission. Kennedy faced an anxious Congress and made his bold statement:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Kennedy recognized the importance to economics, national security, and national morale of the space program. He foresaw that the mission would outlast his presidency, and that the benefits would far outlast the age. The pursuit of the technology that would put a man on the moon would have tremendous impact on technology on Earth -- and in all of these analyses, he proved himself remarkably prescient.

We no longer live in the more-or-less binary world of the Cold War. We have no technological battle against a single enemy. The government has mostly removed itself from large technological challenges, rightly leaving those mostly to the private sector as Amercicans see no specific public interest in its pursuit.

However, we have entered a new age, and we still rely on old technology, in one important aspect: energy. We live in a petroleum-based economy, where half of our oil has to be imported in order to provide the energy that fuels it. Significant portions of those imports come from Southwest Asia and Africa, where political instability continually drives prices up. Our money flows to regimes that fuel anti-Americanism, including Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, our #3 and #4 source of oil imports. Our needs have kept us tied to oppressive regimes and inadvertently bolstered radical Islamism and terrorism.

Most Americans would agree that the US has to move away from dependency on foreign oil. In this election, both parties have made it part of their arguments. So far, though, we have seen little in specific policy to accomplish this.

So I ask CQ readers: is it time for a moon-shot on energy, and if so, what would it take?

Here are the parameters I've been contemplating. We have enough reserves in the ground to last a few decades at present levels of use. If we opened these reserves for exploration and drilling for a finite period -- say 15 years -- we could use that time to develop infrastructures of energy production and distribution that could replace our existing channels devoted to petroleum.

Nuclear energy -- We could replace most or all of our electricity generation with nuclear energy. This will eliminate much of our hydrocarbon use and allow for 100% American production. This opens up options for vehicles as well. One of the problems with electrical cars is that increased electrical production to support them would end up using as much oil as before. The distribution channels already exist for delivery; we would just replace the production facilities.

Hydrogen fuel cells -- This technology was actually used in the space program, and still is. The issues for implementation mainly revolve around distribution and safety. If we can make this reasonably safe for the space program, we should be able to make it safe for civilian use as well. This can be used to power vehicles and other independent technology. It is also a clean technology that doesn't pollute. However, its adaptation will take a huge dedication of resources over the short term to replace existing distribution systems for gasoline.

These are two examples of current thinking on alternate and domestically produced sources of energy. The key should be that any proposed energy source has to be clean (or at least close) and sourced domestically in its entirety.

If we want to achieve energy independence, we need to engage in a massive national effort to succeed. We can either drag that effort out over several decades, or we can use our technological advantages to make it happen with the next ten to fifteen years. Kennedy challenged this nation to go to the Moon, and we accomplished what seemed impossible in nine years. How much more important is energy independence for our economy and national security?

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 26, 2006 6:23 AM

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