Based on the 1960’s attempt to land man on the moon a “moonshot” is any large goal that at first seems silly and impossibly tough. The sort of thing that only 0.1% of people would succeed at yet you try it anyway. A lot of the original moon landing calculations were done by hand on paper, using lots of never before tested techniques to land man on another planet.

I’ve been reading through “The tools of Titans” by Tim Ferris recently and there seems to be a reoccurring theme of a moonshot goals from a lot of the people interviewed. The word itself is only mentioned by one interviewee but plenty of others have goals that would fit the description.

Almost all the athletes who are at the top of their game would have had to overcome extreme odds to get to the top of the world in their chosen sport. Watching them compete you can be forgiven to think they are just naturally good. Their moves seem controlled and effortless, its easy to forget that they weren’t always like that. Many years ago they were clumsy bumbling beginners learning the basics and getting beaten by everyone else. To a teenager trying a sport at their local leisure centre for the first time and liking it the thought of becoming a world champion is a moonshot.

There are also humanitarian moonshots, such as Bill Gates trying to wipe out HIV Via the Bill and Melinda foundation. Also the longer life foundation hoping to extend human life beyond what is expected. In the future these things may seem trivial and humans will think of us in the 21st century as primitive barbarians for dying to natural causes. The enterprising people taking on these challenges now with no guarantee of success or even moderate progress are all taking on moonshots.

We are now living in an exciting time when moonshots have the ability to go further than the physical moon. There are several companies working on methods for harvesting resources from space. SpaceX are all working out how to reuse rockets to make space flights cheaper. Planetary Resources are working on a way to extract a meaningful amount of ore from asteroids and return it back to earth for profit. Moving tonnes of rock around the world is tricky enough. Having to do it through space must present so many challenges that it seems mad to most people.

What’s the point of having such an audacious goal if you know the chances of succeeding are low?

There’s a saying “aim for the moon, even if you miss you’ll be among the stars”. The pedant in me wants to point out that you wouldn’t be amongst the stars. You’d be dead in vacuum. But the idea behind it still holds. Even if you aim to be the best footballer in the world and only become the 1000th best that’s still enough to make a full time living doing something you love. If you try to eradicate a specific illness and only manage to cure 20% of cases that’s still better than 0%. The people you’ve saved don’t care you didn’t make your moonshot. They care you’ve made an impact to their life. The work you’ve done for that 20% is likely to help others with work on curing the remaining 80%.

I’m not sure how a failed moonshot would end for SpaceX or Planetary Resources because it seems like an all or nothing attempt. The research is very likely to have applications in other parts of life and whatever happens I’m sure it’ll make a great movie starting Tom Hanks.