EDITORIAL

Cancer, climate, plastics: why ‘earthshots’ are harder than moonshots

Apollo was a triumph, but 50 years on, moonshots to solve more-complex global challenges face a different set of hurdles.
Plastic water bottle floating in Pacific Ocean

Global challenges such as plastic pollution are not easily solved using conventional moonshots.Credit: Universal Images Group/Getty

If we can send a human to the Moon, why can’t we build sustainable cities? Defeat cancer? Tackle climate change? So go the rallying cries inspired by one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the US effort that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon on 20 July 1969.

There’s no question that this mission was an extraordinary feat on NASA’s part. Challenged by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the then-fledgling space agency went from having minimal experience with spaceflight — just Alan Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital hop — to designing, building and flying machines to take humans some 380,000 kilometres to another world and back. The Apollo programme was born during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, but it ultimately transcended those politics and became a global triumph.

Apollo drew on impressive financial and human resources. The US government spent about US$26 billion — $264 billion today — on Apollo between 1960 and 1973. At its peak, the mission involved some 400,000 people, many of whom worked at the giant aerospace companies that helped to build the rockets and spacecraft. Together, they solved issues such as escaping low Earth orbit and choreographing safe trips to and from the lunar surface.

Fast-forward five decades, and the moonshot framework — defining a problem, supporting it with money and cross-disciplinary expertise and attempting to solve it in a given timeframe — is being applied to more-complex challenges that we might call ‘earthshots’. There are several such efforts in the United States to conquer cancer. The European Commission’s forthcoming €100-billion (US$112-billion) Horizon Europe research-funding programme — “inspired by the Apollo mission” — includes initiatives for cancer, climate change, oceans and soils. A Japanese moonshot announced in April doesn’t even have a defined target, although it might include eliminating plastic.

The appeal of the moonshot framework is understandable. Before Apollo, it worked for the Manhattan project. It worked for Green Revolution agriculture in the 1960s. And it worked for the Human Genome Project in the 1990s.

But the latest efforts will be harder to achieve, in part because their predecessors didn’t have to face the same scale of corporate expectation. Take the urgent need to develop a new generation of antibiotics. This requires close cooperation between universities, companies, governments and other groups. But pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest unless they are likely to reap large profits, so progress is slow.

It is even worse in the case of climate change: for decades, energy corporations have stymied global efforts to make equitable reductions to greenhouse-gas emissions because such efforts would reduce their profits. Influential private companies are central to today’s earthshots, but the historical moonshot approach will be ineffective if potential conflicts of interest are not addressed.

There are other reasons, too, why a conventional moonshot would be less than ideal for approaching complex problems. Take the case of climate change. That will require not just money and expertise, but also reconciliation of competing political ideologies, especially in richer countries; satisfaction of demands for equity from poorer countries; and recognition of the citizen voice rising today in local campaigns such as climate strikes in schools.

Last week, innovation economist Mariana Mazzucato at University College London reiterated that the European Commission should adopt an inclusive approach to governing its moonshot-style missions — involving citizens and non-governmental organizations in defining problems, implementing solutions and monitoring progress.

Society would benefit from such an approach. The greater goal — be it reducing inequality or surviving cancer — must always trump the individual vested interests of those participating. These are not challenges that one country, or even one region, can overcome on its own, and responsibility for action must therefore lie in a multilateral approach, as messy and difficult as that is.

But adapting the moonshot approach to fit modern earthshots should in no way detract from Apollo’s achievements. On the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, Nature polled almost 800 scientists and found that the mission had inspired more than half of them to become scientists. That is a concrete example of how NASA shaped an entire generation of researchers.

As the world commemorates the epic feat of landing a person on the Moon, let us also celebrate how individuals came together, how they solved complicated and difficult problems and how they set aside individual interests to achieve collective success in what will always be one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments.

Nature 571, 145 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02093-7

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