Moon Worth Apollo’s $170 Billion?

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Whether the $170 billion that Americans spent on the Apollo moon program was worth it certainly depends on who is asked. When, in 1961, President Kennedy proposed “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” it was estimated that such an endeavor would cost $7 billion. This was quickly revised upward and ended up being calculated in 1973 at $25.4 billion. In 2009, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took another look and, in 2005 dollars, the estimate was $170 billion. Dividing that amount by the 204 million people in the United States in 1970 comes to a cost of $840 for every baby, teenager, middle-aged taxpayer and senior citizen; not including interest.

“Caveat emptor,” or may the buyer beware, goes hand-in-hand with a market-based economy like that of the United States. The question, therefore, of what the American public received for the dollars spent is valid. A number of practical technologies would not exist without the 1960s research, fueled by adrenaline, that came out of the Apollo Program.

Among those technologies is kidney dialysis. In addition, the technology that was developed in order to maintain the physical fitness of astronauts in space morphed into physical therapy and athletic development equipment used now by sports teams, clinics and physical rehabilitation centers. Reflective home insulation materials are derived from the metallic foils created to protect astronauts and their delicate instrumentation from heat and radiation. Metalizing techniques led to packaging for foods, window shades, life rafts, candy wrappers, photo reflectors and reflective safety blankets.

Water purification technologies developed for space are now used to kill viruses, bacteria and algae in water supply systems. Lead is removed from water with faucet-mounted systems. Metal-bonded polyurethane, developed for spacecraft protection, is used extensively in the Alaskan pipeline, where oil needs to be kept at temperatures of 180 °F in order to keep flowing. Flame-resistant fabrics were developed after the conflagration of Apollo 1 claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Such materials are now used in military, firefighting and motor sports.

There is also 840 pounds of moon rock held in sterile conditions at the Johnson Space Flight Center. Americans certainly got more than rock out of the $170 billion Apollo moon program but, as before, whether it was worth it is a judgment of individual values.

Skylab, which was part of Apollo, did a lot of remote sensing, not unlike the high-resolution images from Landsat, another Apollo offshoot. One surprise to come from Skylab was the finding that depressions in the ocean floor (like trenches) actually have a toned-down replica of such depressions in the sea surface above. Similarly, the ocean’s surface actually goes up over seamounts. The depression in the sea’s surface over the Puerto Rico trench is more than 20 meters deep.

Practicalities aside, President Kennedy’s main desire in igniting Apollo was political. The United States, the undisputed leader on the global stage, had taken a hard knock when the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. News reports informed short wave radio operators how to listen to the satellite’s beeping transmissions. Engineers at RCA recorded the signal, and gave the magnetic audio tape to NBC radio for broadcast to Americans who were stunned to hear the cold, mechanical beep-beep-beep coming from space. “The Soviets are there, and we are not” was the thought of the time. The launch of Sputnik 1, combined with the televised, disastrous failure of the launch attempt of the Vanguard Test Vehicle 3, led to a fearful public’s perception of a “missile gap,” an issue which became dominant in the 1960 Presidential campaign.

President Kennedy’s 1961 proposal for a moon shot was therefore primarily political, not scientific. Whether worth it or not, the $170 billion Apollo moon plan was a bold – and successful – attempt to surpass the Soviet Union’s commanding lead in space flight.

By Gregory Baskin


Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Goddard Space Flight Center
Ian Ridpath

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