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Alex Davies has a new piece in Wired all about moon shots:

Fifty years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, planted an American flag, and flew home, the term moon shot has become shorthand for trying to do something that’s really hard and maybe a bit crazy.

Davies lists out some examples with President Obama’s bid to cure cancer, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s bid to halt climate change, and a handful of projects from Google X’s so-called Moonshot Factory among them. These, he argues, “are big, hard problems that demand significant investments of time and money, along with innovative technology and thinking” just like the original US lunar landing. Yet they are also different from the original moon shot in two key ways:

  1. They demand nowhere near the resources the United States used to reach the Sea of Tranquility
  2. They fail to match the targeted specificity of the original moon shot

And so, Davies argues, we should not call these modern efforts moon shots at all. They are important, they are necessary, they are potentially world changing…but they are not moon shots, at least not of a style that President Kennedy and Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin might recognize.

Davies’ piece is part of Wired‘s series on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, but it is also a piece that could find a place in any modern magazine where the English language is a focus. The definition of moon shot is what is at issue here and Davies convincingly argues that our targets have become less defined even as our ambitions have become greater.

One of the wonderful things about the English language is that it is free from the control of any one group or the influence of any one government. While Websters, Collins, Oxford, Cambridge, and Macquarie might hold themselves as ‘keepers of the language’ with their annual dictionary editions, they are really no more than recorders of the trends and uses of a vocabulary that is in a state of constant change.

Moon shot, of course, is not the only term that has changed its meaning over time. ‘Literally’, as Davies notes, rarely means literally any more, at least in popular usage. The term ‘ironic’ has morphed through incorrect use into something closer to ‘coincidental’. Davies points to ‘decimation’ as another term that has changed over time from its Roman roots, but a more recent military redefinition might be the word ‘defense’ (or ‘defence’ should you spell it in the Queen’s English). After all, it’s not common to find a Department of War or a Ministry of War these days; most have morphed into Departments of Defense or Ministries of Defense without much of a change to their mission. In a sense, war became defense, a little more palatable in the eyes of the voters, perhaps?

TED has a nice list of words that have changed their meaning over time, including:

  • nice
  • silly
  • myriad
  • naughty
  • fathom

Of the TED collection I think my favorite is ‘awful’: where once it meant ‘full of awe’ it today means something horrible, distasteful, or otherwise bad.

So is Davies right to argue that moon shot has no place in the 21st century? I have to say no.

Davies argues for ‘moon booms’ to face the challenges of the present instead of more ‘moon shots’ inspired by the past

We may no longer set targets like Kennedy did nor fund them as the US government did. Davies reports that 4% of the US federal budget was dedicated to the lunar mission at its peak. The equivalent percentage of today’s budget would be nearly $190 billion; this is nine times what is actually spent on NASA and greater than all the federal spending on the State Department, Education, Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy combined!

But, for me, there’s value in using the term moon shot instead of replacing it with moon boom, or even something else. The term has some history, it reminds anyone who encounters it what is possible when a group of people commit to doing something even when that something is maybe impossible to imagine when the goal is set. That’s the essence of the term for me: the path setting without the map, the identification of a big, hairy, audacious goal without all of the details of how it might be achieved.

I’m happy with moon shots and even if I am convinced, like Davies, of the need for some moon booms, I’m entirely at ease with describing them in a way that draws inspiration from that first small step for man and that giant leap for mankind.



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