Everybody says this country needs a Sputnik-style challenge to get us motivated again. But Americans already face such a challenge in climate change and an energy crunch - and they threaten us far more dramatically than the Soviet space program ever did.
You don't have to look to melting glaciers to see the symptoms of America's energy and climate woes. Just think about the $3 per gallon you're paying for gasoline, or about the massive wildfires that raged across the American West recently, or our military entanglement in the Middle East, brought on in part by our boundless thirst for oil.
Even President Bush now acknowledges that global warming is a serious threat and that energy independence is a major goal for national policy.
The job for the next president is to rally the country to deal with these problems.
"Sustainable energy is the equivalent of the U.S. moon shot," says Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, near San Francisco. A commitment on the scale of the Apollo space program would, says Chu, lead to "breakthroughs in energy technologies, efficiency technologies and new forms of energy."
What follows are a few ways a jolt of moon-shot psychology could help America solve its energy problems:
Bolster American science and technology education. In 1957, alarm over the Soviet space program produced a new commitment to science in the nation's classrooms, with vastly improved teacher training and science-education resources. We won the space race -- and produced the generation of scientists and engineers behind the technological revolution of the late 20th century. But science education has again lost its way. In a 2006 comparison of 15-year-olds from 30 developed countries, American students ranked below average in science literacy and near the bottom of the list, just ahead of Portugal, in mathematics.
It's time to get alarmed again, with energy and climate as the immediate focus -- and an array of technological and competitive benefits down the road.
A program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) offers one good way to make science exciting. Its robotics competitions -- like March Madness for science geeks -- give middle- and high-school kids hands-on experience with physics and computer programming. Video: Robots in action
The American Association for the Advancement of Science also has developed a blueprint, dubbed Project 2061, for improving science education nationwide. "Our future is going to be shaped by science and mathematics and technology," says Project 2061