2017: An Unlikely World

Science & Technology

To Shoot for the Moon

Sweet Dreams are Made of This | Introduction to Moonshots

    • Research definitions of moonshots. How is a moonshot different than any other scientific or technological research project?
    • For each of the following historical efforts, discuss with your team: would you consider it a moonshot? Was it successful?
    • Polynesian Exploration | Global Circumnavigation | First Manned Flight | Supersonic Travel | Mind Control | The Creation of the Internet
    • Exhibit: Watch this inspirational introduction to moonshots, released by Google’s “X” division in 2013. Then, research the various Google X “moonshots” since its founding. Have any failed? Have any succeeded? Discuss with your team: do they fulfill the promise in the introductory video?

It’s Rocket Science | The Original Moonshot

    • What does it mean that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Space Race in the 20th century? Who was “winning” in 1960?
    • Exhibit: Watch or read a transcript of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech.
    • Basic science: The Physics of Rockets | The Moon
    • Engineering considerations: The Design of the Lunar Module | The Apollo Space Suit
    • What did the lunar landings discover about the moon?
    • Key terms: rover | lunar module | command module | Saturn V | escape velocity | engine arming switch | steering rockets | descent engine | ascent engine | gyroscope | Apollo 13
    • Investigate the Soviet program to reach the moon. How close did it come to success, and how similar was it to the American program?
    • A question to consider: would it have still been a great achievement to land a man on the moon if it were just a one-way trip? What if the Soviet Union had landed a man on the moon (but not returned him to Earth) and the United States had later landed a man on the moon and returned him to Earth. Would the winner of the “race” have been less clear?
    • Discuss with your team: is it unjust that the Apollo program did not give any women the opportunity to land on the moon?
    • Return to the Moon: Have the United States and the Soviet Union continued their lunar explorations? What new countries have launched lunar missions since the 1960s? Are their efforts moonshots? What is their scientific value?

Select Guided Cases (Explore Others in Similar Ways)

    • A halfway-to-the-moonshot: consider the space elevator, a concept over a century old which, if executed, would allow remarkably affordable transportation back-and-forth into Earth orbit. Famously depicted by science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson, is it something we could see built in our lifetimes? Research how a space elevator would work, then discuss as a team: how different would the world be if we had inexpensive access to space? Would you rather see a space elevator or, say, a manned mission to Mars?
    • Explore a modern-day moonshot that could someday shoot us great distances at supersonic speeds: the hyperloop. Does the fact that seemingly legitimate companies and well-known investors and entrepreneurs are working on the idea make it more plausible? Discuss with your team: does this technology deserve the attention it is receiving, what are the greatest obstacles to its success, and, if it did succeed, how much would it change the world?
    • Building on ideas first proposed by Nikola Tesla in 1891, scientists and private ventures in the 21st century are finally trying to make wireless electricity an everyday reality. Discuss with your team: how would wireless electricity work, what are the major obstacles, and has something made it more possible today than in the past? Are there tangible benefits beyond reducing the number of cables in your backpack? What would you say to someone who is afraid that wireless electricity sounds unsafe?
    • Woolly mammoths, dodos, and various recent CGIosauruses: one modern-day moonshot suggests we could revive long-gone species, provided we can find well-preserved samples of their DNA. Discuss with your team: should we be trying to revive extinct species? If so, how would we choose which ones? Be sure to explore how this de-extinction process would work—what are the requirements, and what are the dangers?
    • Is landing among the stars good enough? In his final year in office, and motivated in part by the death of his vice president's son, President Obama announced a moonshot to cure cancer—a moonshot that has inspired some controversy. Consider the argument made in this article for why some moonshots succeed, and what it implies for the cancer moonshot and others. Be sure to research the basic science behind promising new cancer treatments, such as those based on immunotherapy.
    • Explore the various projects currently in the works to send probes and even humans to Mars. Which do you think are the most likely to succeed? Read the linked article, then discuss with your team: are nations justified in taking nationalistic pride in their extraterrestrial achievements? Are all these efforts worthwhile, and, if so, what gives them their value?
    • Is geoengineering to change the world’s climate to human specifications—or even to reverse climate change—a potential moonshot of the future? What would be the benefits and drawbacks? How has the prospect been received by the United Nations and other international organizations? Is it possible such a technology could be used maliciously—and can something both have destructive potential and be considered a moonshot?

Concluding Questions

    • Read “The Secret to Moonshots? Killing Our Projects”. Then, discuss with your team: what makes a moonshot likely (or unlikely) to succeed? What do you think the author means when he suggests that "enthusiastic skepticism" is the perfect partner of "boundless optimism"? Should all moonshots follow an approach like the one described here?
    • Are moonshots better off led by governments, for-profit companies, or non-profit organizations?
    • Is the study of moonshots too focused on achievements in the Western world? Or, is the very idea of a moonshot rooted in American ideology?
    • What moonshots do you think will succeed in the next decade? Which ones will change your life?
    • If you could work on an existing moonshot, what would it be?
    • If you could design your own new moonshot, what would it be?
    • Are we truly “a species of moonshots”?
    • Do moonshots distract from smaller, more manageable achievements, or do they facilitate them?