The Moon(shot) is a Harsh Mistress

Last week brought news that Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, had died. Cernan’s mission, Apollo 17, is the only actual moonshot that I have any memories of.  By the time of its launch, in December 1972, I was seven years old, and a big fan of the space program and astronauts. I spent a lot of time reading space program related back issues of Life magazine when we visited my grandmother.

One of the reasons I remember this launch, as opposed to any others, is that it was a night launch.  So, not only was it  more spectacular than the others, since it launched at 11:33 Central time, it meant I got to stay up past my bedtime – which my mom usually rigorously enforced at 8:00 PM.

The other reason I am thinking about moonshots this week is that I am invited to participate in a panel discussion on “moonshot” projects.  For decades now, hard problems that have technology solutions have faced calls for the government and industry to invest in either “a new Manhattan Project” or “a new Moonshot” program.  Energy and cancer research are the primary government examples that come to mind.  In the private sector, Google and Facebook are companies that are talking about moonshot projects.

You may have noticed that we have not solved our energy problems, or cured cancer.  You may also have read recently that Google is killing off its moonshots.  In preparation for my panel discussion, I have been thinking about what makes a moonshot project successful.

The two examples we have, the Manhattan project and Apollo have a number of things in common. First, they had specific well defined goals:  Build a deliverable atomic fission weapon;  Deliver a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth.  Second, they set (or had set for them) a finite time to accomplish this goal: Beat the Germans/end of the war; The end of the decade. Third, they had nearly unlimited access to resources: Both Manhattan and Apollo projects, during their peak funding years commanded 0.4% of the nation’s GDP!  Fourth, they had strong leadership teams in both project management and technical skills: Exemplified in the Manhattan project by General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer; and in Apollo by General Sam Phillips and Werner von Braun.

So what are the chances for success of recent moonshots?   Lets take a look at the most recent example, the Cancer Moonshot and see if it has anything in common with Apollo or the Manhattan project.

Does the cancer moonshot have clear goals?  The goals as announced in the 2016 State of the Union address are to “mak(e) a decade of progress in preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer in 5 years, ultimately striving to end cancer as we know it.”  Cancer is not one monolithic disease, so this goal lacks the requisite tight focus.  And I cannot find any roadmap that lists the ten year objectives were that are to be accomplished in five years. The goals that are listed are also fairly small bore and include using Uber and Lyft to bring patients to their treatments. It smacks of Werner von Braun’s quote about crash programs being based on the idea that if you get nine women pregnant you can have a baby in a month. I give this one a fail.

Is the cancer moonshot time bound?  Well, it does give a five year time horizon, so I will say it passes this test.

How about funding levels?  This article notes approved for $6.3B over ten years, or less than $1B per year.   0.4% of current US GDP would be ~$67B per year, so we are a far cry from Apollo/Manhattan levels. Fail.

And leadership?  As much as everyone loves Joe Biden, he is no Leslie Groves.  And I can’t find a technical lead for the cancer moonshot on any of the websites, so I give this one a fail too.

Bottom line, I don’t expect to see a cure for cancer in five years emerging from this initiative.

Next up – what about Google’s moonshots?

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