01/28/2013 03:25 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

The 'Moon Speech' Must Go Green

President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to sustainable energy and addressing climate change in his inaugural address. Though he noted the transition will be extended and difficult, the words that rang truest were these: "we must lead it."

That declaration, however, cannot be the exclamation point; it is only the opening argument. The crescendo that rallies the nation must come next. And there is precedent.

Just over 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd at Rice University and declared that the United States must win the race for space. This famous oration -- often called the Moon Speech -- was the case Kennedy made to the nation for a significant increase in spending on personnel, technological innovations, and facilities necessary to reach the moon by decade's end. Today, renewable energy is our moon, and to paraphrase him, we should intend to be first.

The push for renewable, or green, energy is often tied to a number of different challenges. Making strides in this area will increase the nation's ability to meet its own energy needs, address carbon emissions and climate change, and improve energy security through a diversification of our energy portfolio. But the two most important drivers for green energy advancements are: First, to lead the world by example and, second, to build a base of expertise and technical advances that will pay dividends far beyond cheaper electric bills.

The United States must have its green moment, and soon. As the global population grows and the demand for energy explodes, the 21st century will be the era where energy is king. Just as Kennedy will forever be the president that inspired a nation to accomplish the impossible, President Obama has the opportunity to be one to usher the world into the Energy Age.

Lessons for this energy revolution are found in the herculean effort required to put a man on the moon. The less obvious benefits are found in products we encounter daily that are an integral part of our way of life. The smoke detectors in your home, the invisible braces for your teenager's teeth, and the foam in your mattress all found their origin in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-sponsored inventions that facilitated sending Americans into space. The number of patents and businesses that were spawned from the decision to go to the moon created jobs and revenue that far exceed the country's initial investment.

The most obvious benefit, however, is found in the one American flag that is never at half mast: the one on the moon. After a series of satellite achievements by the Soviet Union that embarrassed the United States, President Kennedy's declaration -- that the nation can only continue to lead the world if it is first in space -- placed a bet on American exceptionalism. Going to the moon became a point of patriotic pride and rallied every citizen, because to fail would be an insult to the American ethic. This is the incentive that money cannot buy.

Unsurprisingly, many around the country today are quite peeved that America is losing the green energy technology race. A nation that houses the world's best universities and largest economy should not be lagging behind countries like Indonesia and Italy in renewable energy use. Nor should such a nation trail China and Germany in advanced manufacturing for green technologies like solar panels. But we do, and we are not closing the gap quickly enough. Being first in green energy technologies should be a point of pride. The same flames of achievement that Kennedy stoked must be rekindled if we are to be the preeminent nation.

In addition to the national ethos and ego, the offspring of a robust national green technology effort are the increase in the patents, businesses, and creative engineers that will do for tomorrow's economy what the moon landing has done for today's. We cannot begin to fathom that inventions and innovations that await the nation that solves green energy first. This can be President Obama's legacy that will guide the nation's trajectory well into the century.

To be sure, there have been many accomplishments in the green energy space to date. American research and development has spawned numerous advancements and the price of solar, biofuel, and other renewables has dropped considerably over the last several years. Likewise, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by President Obama's included large investments into green technologies, and these will take time to come to fruition. He can rightfully claim to be the "greenest" president the nation has ever had.

But the nation has not yet had the seminal moment in green energy that can rival that of Kennedy's Moon Speech. The current narrative is dominated by those companies that have failed, such as Solyndra. This is unfortunate and contrary to the American character.

Obama can, and did in his inaugural speech, make Kennedy's claim that "there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."

The United States must lead here, and only this generation can chart the course. Otherwise, we will miss our moon, and the green flag will fly at half mast.