The Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the singular events in human history, followed by upwards to a billion people in real time on live TV and radio broadcasts. This was on a planet that had 3.5 or so billion people at the time. The moon landing garnered for the United States a considerable amount of international prestige, something that was somewhat tattered by the Vietnam War and civil strife.
Even so the American people, at least according to polling data gathered by historian Roger Launius, were at best tepid in their response to the Apollo moon landing. Only during the flight of Apollo 11 did more than 50 percent of the American people support the proposition that the moon landings were worth the cost. This was one reason that the political class was disposed to pull back on space spending, even going so far as cancelling the last three moon landing missions, despite the fact that the hardware had already been built and that savings were minimal.
The Apollo 11 launch was actually the venue of a protest march, led by a civil rights leader named Rev. Ralph Abernathy led several hundred people to Cape Canaveral to protest what he saw as misplaced priorities, spending money on expeditions to the moon instead of feeding the poor. He was met by then NASA Administrator Thomas Paine who argued that the great advances made in the exploration of space were child’s play compared to the intractable problems of poverty. Paine said, “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” The implication clearly was that stopping the lunar expedition would not solve the problems of poverty. Nevertheless Abernathy’s position gained some resonance in the minds of many Americans, particularly politicians on the left,
There is some evidence that the Apollo moon landing program was of net economic benefit for the United States, something that is unique for a government program. According to Jerome Schnee of the Business Administration Department at Rutgers University at least three economic studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that research and development derived from the space program was of net economic benefit for the United States. Much of this occurred in the form of technological spin-offs, technology developed for flying to the moon that wound up having more mundane applications. While NASA and some space enthusiasts have tended to oversell this phenomenon, it still exists and should be taken into account when considering the cost/benefit equation for government space spending.
Some libertarian analysts suggest that the spinoff argument is folly, that money spent on space could be more efficiently be spent in the private sector. This may or may not be so, but it tends to ignore unpleasant political realities. If NASA were abolished and all government space programs were scrapped, there is little hope that the money saved would be plowed into the private sector. It would likely be spent on other government programs, such as social welfare, that would derive far less benefit for the United States.
The Apollo program did lead to a certain degree of good will for the United States around the world. Roger Launius suggests that the Apollo moon landing “met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was. NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11.”
Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who writes frequently about space policy matters, suggests that it had a different reaction among the Soviet leadership, one the reverberated to the very end of the Cold War, affecting perceptions of another big, technological project.
“President Kennedy started Apollo and the race to the Moon as a Cold War gambit; a way to demonstrate the superiority of a free and democratic way of life to that of our communist adversaries. That goal was successfully achieved to a degree still not fully appreciated today. The success of the Apollo program gave America something it did not realize was so important – technical credibility. When President Reagan announced SDI twenty years later, the Soviets were against it, not because it was destabilizing and provocative, but because they thought we would succeed, rendering their vast military machine, assembled at great cost to their people and economy, obsolete in an instant. Among other factors, this hastened the end of the Cold War in our favor.”
In other words, the Soviets concluded that if the Americans could land a man on the moon, they could succeed in President Reagan’s goal in making nuclear weapons obsolete with a space based missile defense system. Spudis draws a direct line from the Apollo program to SDI and, by implication, to the American victory in the Cold War. The analysis makes one think how sooner the Cold War could have been won had America doubled down on Apollo and drove the lesson of American technological superiority home. Someone really should write a book about that.
The science returns from Apollo are almost beyond evaluation. Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine lists just ten of many that reveal much about the moon’s geology and history. Using analytical tools that did not exist during the Apollo lunar missions, scientists continue to make new discoveries.
The closing question for this chapter is, was the Apollo program, which cost roughly $100 billion in current dollars, worth it? It seems that by every measure, politically, economically, and scientific, the answer has to be yes. But that did not matter to those who saw large scale space adventures as an affront.