Do we need more moonshots?

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. The specter of Russia taking the lead in space exploration shocked Americans and forced the science and policy communities to confront a new threat to U.S. leadership and prestige. It also set in motion what became the original “moonshot” — President Kennedy’s challenge to the country to put a man on the moon within the decade.

Today, people talk about how we need a moonshot for…just about everything. We have moonshots for climate change. Moonshots for cancer. Even moonshots for specific scientific disciplines. The term “moonshot” has been applied so widely, we seem to have lost sight of just what a moonshot is and why we might need one.

So let’s try to define it. Reflecting again on the original moonshot, I see three significant characteristics.

A moonshot is unambiguous. It requires clarity of purpose, a defined timeframe, and measurable criteria. It’s not squishy. It’s not vague. Its success or failure can be readily understood by anyone.

However, with a moonshot, success is not guaranteed. A moonshot is ambitious. And risky. A moonshot is something that hasn’t been done before, and it may not be immediately apparent how it can be done at all. A moonshot is not simply the next obvious step from where we are today. It requires patience and resources and acceptance that there will be failures along the way.

And yet, despite the risk, a moonshot also has an ineffable quality that shifts our perspective and moves us to act. A moonshot requires leadership and vision, but achieves success not merely in the articulation of a goal, but through its execution. A moonshot inspires excellence and draws upon the best within us and within humanity.

I tend to think today’s overuse of the term “moonshot” is treacherous. If everything is a moonshot, then nothing is. “Moonshots” that aren’t really moonshots inevitably become disappointments. These, in turn, diminish the ability of leaders to articulate real moonshots that inspire the public, enable action, and build institutions that can accomplish great things.

In a world that faces diverse and complex problems, I don’t think we can say “no, we don’t need more moonshots.” To do so would suggest we should turn inward, in defiance of our nature as explorers, rather than look outward.

But do we need a moonshot for everything? Probably not. A decade ago, I might have said we needed a moonshot for energy. But improvements in so many clean energy technologies — including exponential progress on technical performance and economics that continues today — is a strong argument against the need for moonshot-style transformation in the sector.

Still, I like to think about how the future might be different if we did have an energy moonshot. An idea that, when you heard about it, you were spellbound — and then driven to act. Something that, like the original moonshot, would inspire generations to imagine not just the next best thing, but something entirely new.