Almost half a century ago, after the United States was humiliated by Russia lofting the first man into space, President John Kennedy threw out his imperative of putting men on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
There followed an era of perhaps the most concentrated technological advancement in our history, and on July 21, 1969, the world watched in awe the televised images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon’s surface.
Unfortunately, President Kennedy didn’t live to see it. Over the next three years, there were six more missions in which men walked on the moon. And then no more; the U.S. space program moved in other directions and today is a shadow of its former glory.
The cost of the entire Apollo program — considered by many the crowning achievement of the 20th century — was $24.5 billion in 1969 dollars, a shade over $100 billion in today’s dollars (less than half what we’ve spent on just two years of Iraq war).
Just four years after Armstrong’s walk, the nation that had trumped the world in technological achievement was held in thrall, not by its Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union, but by a few little-known nations in the Mideast that had clamped shut their oil spigots.
Perhaps not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was there such monumental outrage by Americans as they queued in blocks-long lines for gasoline.
And the leaders of the country that put men on the moon, vowing that never again would we be held hostage to foreign oil, encouraged all manner of programs to develop alternative energy, from solar cells to wind generators to biomass — you name it, and there was a research effort for it.
But unlike the man-on-the-moon program, the dedication and determination to achieve a heroic goal weren’t maintained. The Mideast sheiks set the oil flowing again and alternate energy programs faded into the woodwork as politicians eagerly spent research dollars elsewhere. After all, even a doubling of the price of oil was still cheaper than any alternative form of energy, so why spend money to produce a more expensive product?
The shortsightedness of that rationale stares us in the face today.
Over the past 30 years, it is estimated that OPEC’s manipulation of oil prices has cost the U.S. economy at least $4 trillion, maybe as much as $14 trillion, above what would have been spent under non-cartel competitive pricing.
Although U.S. consumers, business, and industry have adopted many energy conservation measures, perhaps the greatest reduction in oil consumption came through mandated vehicle fuel economy standards. From 1975-1985, the U.S. gross domestic product rose a whopping 27 percent, but oil use dropped 17 percent and net oil imports fell 42 percent. OPEC lost half its market, destroying its pricing power for a decade — due chiefly to Detroit’s nearly 8-mile-per-gallon improvement in vehicle fuel economy. But that effort petered out and demand for imported oil zoomed.
Does anyone believe that had the U.S. not wavered from its 1970s resolve to achieve energy self-sufficiency, whether ethanol/methanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, or a combination thereof, we would today again be the captive of OPEC and big oil?