Nation-building moonshots and why they matter

Georgie Skipper

It is 52 years since the first person walked on the moon. The day that Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins landed on the moon was one of the most significant milestones in human history.

It created a reference point for past and future ambition. It set the tone for the type of ambition we crave in leaders, both governments and business.

The ambition, planning and then delivery of the Apollo 11 mission was the result of successive United States administrations under the leadership of presidents John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon.

What did it in effect mean? It positioned the United States as a technological and cultural world leader during the Cold War.

But it also symbolised something far greater – that no matter what we might think is impossible, human chutzpah and effort can overcome.

Georgie Skipper
Sun Cable’s Georgie Skipper

It created a reference point for nation building and human endeavour, which we will still refer to in cabinet rooms and boardrooms across the world, more than half a century later.

Since then, state-led financed ambition has not manifested in the same way. This is the result of multiple factors – some key ones being the direction of national budgets across an increasingly complex array of priorities, and the lurching emergency responses to state and non-state threats, including terrorism and mounting geo-strategic challenges.

This is especially pertinent today as governments around the world direct resources and policy planning to emergency responses to COVID-19 crisis and economic recovery. National budgets will likely be in deficit for decades to come.

Budgets and the political appetite for ambitious nation building activity could significantly decrease, even though it is exactly at this time that we need to think big.

There has been an increasing trend over the past three decades toward the privatisation of these transformative, nation building moments.

The move away from a neoliberal pure focus on balance sheet management has led to a rise of a well-resourced, risk-accepting class of private sector investors. This is most clearly seen in the Silicon Valley veneration of ‘moonshots.’

It feels timely that just as we mark over half a century since NASA’s delivery of the Apollo 11 mission, that billionaires and entrepreneurs Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are in a space race of their own.

Indeed, just over a week since Richard Branson took his very own Virgin Galactic test flight to space to pave the way for private funded space tourism, Jeff Bezos has gone to space this week.

Like the space race the Apollo 11 mission was borne out of, which led to benefits to consumers, this new space race could also lead to other positives, including in areas such as climate change.

The COVID-19 vaccines delivered by Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson and other companies, represent another example of private sector-led world leading innovation.

Indeed, in the context of vaccines delivering a pathway out of this global pandemic and accelerate our capability to recover, then they may become a new type of ‘moonshot’ altogether.

The continued diffusion of moonshot initiatives among a diverse range of stakeholders presents many challenges and opportunities, and indeed new responsibilities.

The definition of nation building is called into question as the agendas and interests of those creating and driving ambition becomes more dispersed.

There are clear benefits in aggregated government planning and budgeting whereby priorities are set at a national level for public benefit, that cannot be leveraged as easily.

Similarly, there are clear benefits to the competition-led approach of the private sector that can help to solve complex global challenges.

Both the public and private sectors need to recognise that their ability to realise these visions relies on coordination, information sharing and mutual respect. The involvement in the Moon to Mars program by the Australian Government is a great example of this.

In that context, its incumbent upon us all to promote new partnerships between the public and private sector to set the standard and coordination for nation-building opportunities across areas that will have a material impact on our country’s economic growth, prosperity and our vision.

As history has taught us, out of the ashes of great deprivation come the greatest advancements – but the time to frame what a new post-COVID world will look like is fast slipping away.

Now is the time to leverage national prioritisation together with private sector led efficiencies and market-driven innovation.

In times of uncertainty, leadership requires a social licence to aim big. It is incumbent upon us all to continue to push a little harder, stretch, and aim for the moon – and to ask those leading to do the same. In the midst of a global pandemic, and at a time when we need hope and vision, all of us can play a role in shaping the next reference point for visionary, transformative projects that take us to the ‘moon’.

Georgie Skipper is Chief of Government Affairs and member of the executive team at Sun Cable, building the world’s largest renewable energy infrastructure. She was senior adviser to the Foreign Minister of Australia from 2013-2018.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. History only remembers the winners of a race, but I suggest we should also learn from the losers. Like the USA, the USSR had a space program shooting for the moon. But their big rocket failed and the vast expense was wasted, placing the country further behind. Australia can’t afford all-or-nothing moonshots and should adopt the more cautious approach exemplified by the Chinese space program, focusing on smaller goals and learning from others. I suggest an area which Australia can safely reach the stratosphere, if not the moon, is online education. More in my blog …

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