The November issue of the MIT Technology Review featured a provocative article, Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems, written by its editor in chief Jason Pontin. The article focuses on a feeling, - commonplace in Silicon Valley, - that since the Apollo program that put a man in the moon on July 21, 1969, something may have happened to humanity’s capacity to solve big problems. The article reminds me how much our society has changed in the last twenty years, in particular, the different way we solved big problems at the zenith of our 20th century industrial economy versus the way we now do so in the early stages of the 21st century information economy.
The Apollo program was launched at the height of the Cold War. In April of 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing the fears that the US was falling behind the technical and military competition with the Soviet Union. A month later, in a speech before a join session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation:
“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 in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
“This required the greatest peacetime mobilization in the nation’s history,” writes Pontin. “Although NASA was and remains a civilian agency, the Apollo program was possible only because it was a lavishly funded, semi-militarized project . . . In all, NASA spent $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today's dollars, on Apollo; at its peak in the mid-1960s, the agency enjoyed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.”