Summary: On this day 50 years ago, Apollo 11 blasted off. Amidst the triumphal celebrations this week, let’s take a moment to see the real lesson from Project Apollo. It was a grim inflection point in US history. We can chart a better future for America if we learn from it.
At 8:32 on this day fifty years ago, Apollo 11 blasted off on its historic journey to the moon. Like our wars after 9/11, it was expensive. Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo – plus the robot lunar landers (necessary for the Apollo landings) – a rough estimate of the manned space program’s cost through 1972. In our dollars, it cost aprox. $300 billion. As a fraction of our GDP, it is equivalent to roughly $700 billion today (these numbers from this excellent analysis by Casey Dreier).
Like our mad wars, the race to the moon was done primarily in pursuit of national security. In both, we had tactical goals but no strategic goals beyond vast delusional ones: the conquest of space, and nation-building in the Middle East. The 1961 report by President Kennedy’s advisory committee on space gave one of the reasons for the manned space program (word predating Star Trek by five years).
“Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufﬁcient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system. Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.”
That is an absurdly inadequate justification for such an expensive program. The rationale for the program was national security. The Soviet Union might use space to gain a military advantage, perhaps with a base on the moon. And prestige: the US would look weak if they “beat us” in space. Both were debunked at the time as specious, as time has proven them to be. But in the hysteria at the time, people took them seriously (much as they did our nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan).
The justifications people give for the race to the moon – and the manned space program as a whole – show its madness. It produced little useful science, certainly far less than if the money was spent in other areas – as many scientists warned at the time. Reports to Presidents Ike and JFK by the Hornig Committee and the Weisner Committee both warned of this. Philip Abelson, editor of Science magazine testified in 1963 before the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee about his poll of 113 scientists. He asked if they supported putting a man on the moon: 3 said yes, the rest said no.
The boost to technology was even smaller than the gains to science. Many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, and smoke detectors. NASA’s buying did not accelerate the use and power of computers.
It did not unify Americans or change their view of America. It was not even highly popular.
As for the drive to explore, Gerard J. DeGroot debunks that in his powerful book, Dark Side of the Moon (2006) – “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”
“Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories – exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities – precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes – which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.
“In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. …The Moon makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.”
The madness continues. NASA, with some help from other nations, built a $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value proportional to its cost (it has a planned operating life of 30 years).
In 1952 Robert Heinlein wrote “Where To”, giving predictions about the year 2000 (included in the collection Expanded Universe). He was bullish about space.
“If you’re willing to settle today for a constant-boost on the close order of magnitude of 1/1000 G we can start the project later this afternoon, as there are several known ways of building constant-boost jobs with that tiny acceleration. …Ten weeks to Mars, a round trip to Pluto in two years and nine months. It took the Pilgrims in the Mayflower nine weeks and three days to cross the Atlantic. …England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal all created worldwide empires with ships that took as long to get anywhere and back as would a 1/1000 G spaceship. …
“Even the tiniest constant boost turns sailing the Solar System into a money-making commercial venture.”
But he did not describe a single “money-making commercial venture” in space. And in the next 67 years, nobody else has done so – plausibly.
The big lesson from Apollo and the War on Terror
Project Apollo was a decisive turn in American history from practical to magical thinking. The justifications for the manned space program were debunked at the beginning by several commissions – but we did it anyway. Other equally delusional and expensive projects followed. Massive spending on social engineering projects in America. Decades of progress at balancing the Federal budget have been undone repeatedly by conservatives selling snake oil about the benefits of tax cuts for the rich (i.e., by Presidents Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump). We began open-ended spending on the War on Terror with less thought than a typical woman spends on buying a new pair of shoes. All left nothing behind but debts and casualties.
Meanwhile, America’s population grows but we let America’s Infrastructure rot instead of expanding it (the 2017 Report Card us a D+). Our education system and key government departments have eroded away into hot messes desperately needing reform.
The vital lesson is that we are feckless with our money. We can do great things but have poor judgement about the great projects worth doing. To put it bluntly, we have become marks, easily conned into programs that create vast benefits for special interests but do little for America. No nation has the wealth and power to keep throwing away its resources and neglecting its essential needs. We must change in order to prosper, perhaps even to survive. Keep that in mind as you see the triumphal stories and shows about the “mission accomplished” in July 1969.
For a deeper discussion about space, see Why we have not gone into space. Why we must.
For More Information
For another look at our race to the moon, see “Moondoggle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program” by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic (2012).
They are still at it, giving absurdly shallow advocacy for traveling to the moon and beyond. See “Why Space Exploration Is Worth the Effort” by Ellen Stofan in Aviation Week & Space Technology (a magazine for the industry with the most to gain from such spending). She is a director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Here is the best discussion I have found of the pros and cons of putting people into space. Discusses Rome, science fiction, NASA, technology, and many other aspects of the subject. Great links, too!
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010.
- Slashing R&D in favor of more important things, like wars and profits. Who cares about America’s future?
- The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future?
What happened to Project Apollo?
On 20 July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility and Armstrong took his giant leap for humanity. To understand why the Apollo program accomplished so little I recommend reading Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest by Gerard J. Degroot. From the publisher …
“For a very brief moment during the 1960s, America was moonstruck. Boys dreamt of being an astronaut; girls dreamed of marrying one. Americans drank Tang, bought “space pens” that wrote upside down, wore clothes made of space age Mylar, and took imaginary rockets to the moon from theme parks scattered around the country.
“But despite the best efforts of a generation of scientists, the almost foolhardy heroics of the astronauts, and 35 billion dollars, the moon turned out to be a place of “magnificent desolation,” to use Buzz Aldrin’s words: a sterile rock of no purpose to anyone.
“In Dark Side of the Moon, Gerard J. DeGroot reveals how NASA cashed in on the Americans’ thirst for heroes in an age of discontent and became obsessed with putting men in space. The moon mission was sold as a race that America could not afford to lose. Landing on the moon, it was argued, would be good for the economy, for politics, and for the soul. It could even win the Cold War. The great tragedy is that so much effort and expense were devoted to a small step that did virtually nothing for mankind.
“Drawing on meticulous archival research, DeGroot cuts through the myths constructed by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations and sustained by NASA ever since. He finds a gang of cynics, demagogues, scheming politicians, and corporations who amassed enormous power and profits by exploiting the fear of what the Russians might do in space.
“Exposing the truth behind one of the most revered fictions of American history, Dark Side of the Moon explains why the American space program has been caught in a state of purposeless wandering ever since Neil Armstrong descended from Apollo 11 and stepped onto the moon. The effort devoted to the space program was indeed magnificent and its cultural impact was profound, but the purpose of the program was as desolate and dry as lunar dust.”