President John F. Kennedy, however, punched back, sinking tremendous resources into the budding space program and taking the Soviets' accomplishment as a challenge. Kennedy upped the ante, vowing to send a man to the moon.
While he didn't live to see Neil Armstrong take that first giant step, Kennedy launched what is considered one of the most aggressive drives to overcome huge technological hurdles in the nation's history. The United States sought to prove convincingly that American know-how can get the job done, whatever it is.
Give clean energy a shot
Give a similar push to clean energy, and the ramifications would prove spectacular. Imagine cheap solar five times more efficient than existing technology or algae fuel easily harvested and refined from simple CO2-fueled stagnant ponds. Perhaps tidal energy devices could harvest the 2,640 terawatts available on U.S. coasts.
Already the country's national laboratories have come up with amazing results in energy efficiency, biofuels and other renewables. But far more could be done on a regulatory level to encourage research, development and implementation of domestic energy self-reliance. Incentives could be provided through state and local government to implement existing technology, making even the average residential home a net-zero energy user.
After all, energy has become a security issue, and cost on that regard can no longer simply be measured in price per gallon. Yet, fossil fuels and their corporate cheerleaders have powerful lobbies and strong ties to the existing ways of doing business and will likely fight to maintain their part of the status quo. So let them have it. Offer a work-around.
Give oil its due
Sustainability is a big word that can encompass diversified fuel sources. Give oil its due. Petroleum made this country a world leader and rich beyond measure. And coal fuels many regional economies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made history with its recent ruling to curb emissions of coal-fired electricity plants, making even the sub-bituminous variety vastly less irritating to the environment.
Surging renewables could decrease upward pressure on oil prices. The full effect on energy markets is something analysts would have to ponder. But they may stabilize gas prices, let's say at $2.50 per gallon, giving old-world gearheads like me continued access to fuel for our internal combustion engines and leaving the electric hotrods to the younger set.
Another positive development could be declining importance of the Middle East. How about this headline? "Iran abandons nuclear program, cites cash crunch." Healthy competition from alternative energy sources is unlikely to put many in the oil patch out of business, but it would certainly shift the balance of power.
The funny thing is that other counties appear to be seizing the green opportunity. Germany, for instance, has sidelined its nuclear program and embraced clean energy. No politician there says it's easy, but the payoff could be amazing. Norway's also making a push, and China's not messing around either. Of course, the sleeping dragon of the East is going at every sector like it wants to dominate them all.
The key, at least in this country, is keeping government involvement to a minimum. Most in the clean energy sector would prefer to compete on their own terms, without subsidy. And that means innovation.
To a growing extent, that is already happening. In 2011, international spending in clean energy hit $260 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year and about five times what was spent in 2004, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Renewables already play a role
Solar has reached parity or near parity with fossil fuels, and wind is on the cusp. However, both are intermittent: wind dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and solar on the rotation of the Earth. Only geothermal could be argued a constant source, and its capacity to shoulder the energy burden is limited.
In all cases, and this includes biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen, advances in production that simplify and reduce costs prove invaluable to the green energy movement. That's why we need some of the best minds focused on solutions. The nation's universities are primed for the challenge. Many already have taken up the charge. Their fledgling programs just need minimal funding to turn out the next big thing.
Bring on energy efficiency
This can't be done without efficiency. As Trevor Winnie, senior research analyst for consultant Clean Edge, so succinctly points out "the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion" in energy efficiency and cut national energy use by more than a fifth by 2020 or 60 percent by 2050. Winnie cites multiple studies.
"Energy efficiency continues to be the cheapest way to get electricity," he says.
Pair the pursuit of energy efficiency with renewables and a smart grid attuned to a new generation of power sources, and not only would the nation have clean (and hopefully cheap) energy but it would have all the building blocks to fuel its rise to the top of the economic heap once again.
Falter and get dusted
We will have to get moving. In the initial space race, the Russians sent the first man into space, spurring American political leaders to respond. The USSR conquered a previously unimaginable frontier and winning the admiration and acclaim of the world community. Of course, the Nikita Khrushchev-led nation was an arch enemy and Cold War nemesis.
U.S. leaders then feared that control of space could lead to greater geopolitical control. But I tend to believe honor may have had more to do with the space race. The thought of the United States ceding something as monumental as manned flight beyond earth's atmosphere inspired then Kennedy to funnel resources, manpower and the hopes and dreams of the American people behind the Apollo project and getting man to the moon.
Consensus is needed
Kennedy didn't do it alone. His predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lit the space-race fuse with the signing of the signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and support came flooding in from both sides of the aisle.
"We choose to go to the moon ... not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win," Kennedy said in a speech to Rice University in Houston.
Kennedy said the United States was not built by those who rested and those who waited. He said the nation rode the first waves of the industrial revolution and modern invention. "This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash," he said, in a speech that sounds as relevent today as it did June 10, 1963.
Clean energy should be given treatment similar to that received by the space race. The stakes are high, perhaps higher. The nation's security is compromised by its dependence on foreign oil and national debt. Its skies are darkened by smog. Its children suffer from toxins in the air and environment. Our way of life is threatened.
No thanks Dr. Strangelove
Taking action is a heck of a lot better than the depressing scenario painted by TomDispatch blogger and author Michael T. Klare, who writes that pursuing no alternative course will result in potential serious conflict over the scant remaining resources. He identifies several hot spots "where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond."
Klare warns to watch the Strait of Hormuz, the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin and the Arctic.
Wouldn't it be better to look the enemy square in the eye and yell like Slim Pickens' Major Kong?