Were the Apollo Missions a waste of money?

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Critics of human space flight (which I usually identify as) generally feel that manned missions are a huge waste of money. The case is made that the amount of science you get per dollar spent on manned missions does not make them worthwhile, and that money should be spent on better science.

However, with NASA's recent talk about manned missions to Mars, I started thinking about the Apollo missions, and even though I normally identify as a critic of manned spaceflight, I find it very difficult to make the argument that the Apollo missions were a waste of time/money. This is putting my stance on future manned spaceflight into doubt in my mind...

What say ye? If current manned spaceflight is a waste of money, were the Apollo missions a waste of money as well?
 

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  • #2
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were the Apollo missions a waste of money as well?
No. Realizable goal, not more engineering than could be chewed in one bite, manned landing was more flexible than available remote technology, and it was an open and closed program.
NASA's recent talk about manned missions to Mars,
is marketing for the masses, "bread (not and, but) for circuses". The 2001 fans are getting pretty long in the tooth and gullible, generation X hasn't got a clue, current admin is desperate for every distraction it can generate, remote sensing and automated/roving technology can do more than any manned team ever did on the moon.
 
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It's often difficult to gauge whether something of this magnitude is a waste of money or not. Many times the benefits are either intangible or are very, very difficult to put a price on. It's also effectively impossible to accurately predict what might have happened otherwise. For example, what would the world be like today had the space race not occurred? I don't think anyone can possibly know. At best we'd get vague guesses.
 
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  • #4
Ryan_m_b
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I would consider myself a pretty big critic of the near-religious ideological stance that we must colonise space. Having said that I don't think the Apollo missions or a manned Mars mission would necessarily be a waste of money. They're bound to improve our engineering skills, our understanding of the solar system and probably a whole host of other fields. In terms of ROI....I'm inclined to say there are far better ways of investing money. X billion dollars would probably produce more advances if it was used to fund a thousand projects to the tune of X million dollars rather than one large space mission. But then again we don't just do science for purposes of the best immediate ROI, partially because we don't know what will be produced and partially because it is in human nature to get a lot of intangible value from big (and little) undertakings.
 
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It's often difficult to gauge whether something of this magnitude is a waste of money or not.

I don't think it's difficult to gauge this at all. If you're referring to manned spaceflight and a Mars expedition in particular. Forget about the science per se for a moment. You can't really put a price tag on the adventure and human heroism a manned mission to Mars would yield. It might even bring some unity to the planet Earth for a few moments. Sadly, with the exception of the bottom of the ocean, there really are no "explorer" frontiers left for humans to venture to, and I think James Cameron even ruined the bottom of the ocean one :confused:.

I kind of side with Robert Zubrin in thinking a manned mission to Mars needs to be the great adventure of our time, the time of the first half of the 21st century. As far as the biological adventure of biological organisms, I think Mars may be it. I don't really see any manned missions to, say, Europa or any of the outer planets happening in the next century or maybe even ever. Extra-Mars exploration will be carried out by robotic devices with human-like intelligence. My point being is that I think we should embrace our fragile opportunity here to thrill the planet with a manned mission to Mars and redirect the budget of NASA toward such an endeavor.
 
  • #6
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You can't really put a price tag on the adventure and human heroism a manned mission to Mars would yield.

Well you can, not as easily sure but you can. Let's say Joe Politician proposes NASA attempts to put a man on Mars (in the name of "adventure and human herorism"), now let's say he proposes diverting 0.0001% of the budget to do this. Ignoring if that is a practical amount of funding people would probably judge that good value for money. A tiny reallocation of budget for the potential payoff of watching a stranger have an adventure on another planet. But what if it was 0.1%? 1%? 5%? 20%? Pretty soon it gets to the point where people reasonably think that such a large expenditure of money isn't worth the reward of being able to watch a video of a man putting a flag in a red desert.
 
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While I think the Apollo missions were great in themselves, the money could have probably be spent better. Feed the hungry, build or repair some schools, improve education. Hopelessly romantic stuff like that. But this also is valid today for a huge part of the military budget.
 
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But what if it was 0.1%? 1%? 5%? 20%?

Well, obviously the budget reallocation is going to have be reasonable. But it's not just the "potential payoff of watching a stranger have an adventure on another planet," that makes it worthwhile, it's also as you mentioned the inevitable consequence of such a mission to "improve our engineering skills, our understanding of the solar system and probably a whole host of other fields" that is highly relevant here. Again, I think Zubrin outlines all of these benefits rather well. An additional benefit he outlines is, again, the prospect that such a mission is going to re-energize a generation of kids to become interested in science, astrophysics/astrobiology and STEM-related education.
 
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  • #9
Ryan_m_b
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Well, obviously the budget reallocation is going to have be reasonable. But it's not just the "potential payoff of watching a stranger have an adventure on another planet," that makes it worthwhile, it's also as you mentioned the inevitable consequence of such a mission to "improve our engineering skills, our understanding of the solar system and probably a whole host of other fields" that is highly relevant here. Again, I think Zubrin outlines all of these benefits rather well. An additional benefit he outlines is, again, the prospect that such a mission is going to re-energize a generation of kids to become interested in science, astrophysics/astrobiology and STEM-related education.

The thing is if your aim is to push science forward and get kids interested in science then what has the better ROI: X billion spent on a manned space mission or X billion spent on terrestrial projects and science education?
 
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"improve our engineering skills,
Apollo: first engineering skill improvement was "housekeeping" for three lives, one capsule, and $XX; second skill was that duct tape, chewing gum, baling wire, still work, for price of one moon shot. Followed by applications of those improved skills in shuttle program for further lessons: engineering cannot overcome bad management at cost of one crew; duct tape, chewing gum, and baling wire may not be enough when things go south, at cost of second crew. There's definitely room for improvement, and plenty of Buzz Lightyear types willing to try, but it's lots cheaper to fly soft landing packages through a planet's surface than it is to fly manned missions while learning.
 
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The thing is if your aim is to push science forward and get kids interested in science then what has the better ROI: X billion spent on a manned space mission or X billion spent on terrestrial projects and science education?

That's a great question. It would be interesting to poll that here. I would argue that it would be a manned space mission. My first argument is what do you mean by terrestrial projects and science education? Don't we have a lot of that right now? How exciting would it be for a 15 year old high school student to see X billion dollars spent on a second space station or a LISA type interferometer? Post-graduates might get excited over that, but not a 15 year old. I don't think the issue is the availability of terrestrial based science courses or science "tracks" available to kids, I think it's the lack of interest/excitement in these fields that is the limiting factor. A sure fire way to get everyone excited is to send humans to Mars and have an ongoing discussion in the popular media about the challenges and the science that goes into such a project for the entire 3 years it goes on.
 
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engineering cannot overcome bad management at cost of one crew; duct tape, chewing gum, and baling wire may not be enough when things go south, at cost of second crew.

That's exactly my point, people from the 60's (those 60's peopleo0)) don't remember anything about bad management within NASA or engineering issues related to the Apollo missions. What do they remember? They remember Buzz Aldrin sticking his pen into the control panel to release the ascent rocket because the toggle snapped off. See, to the general public, it's all about human interest.
 
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Ryan_m_b
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That's a great question. It would be interesting to poll that here. I would argue that it would be a manned space mission. My first argument is what do you mean by terrestrial projects and science education? Don't we have a lot of that right now?

Sure we do but the scenario under discussion is that more money is allocated to science; should that extra funding go to one space project or multiple Earth-bound projects?

How exciting would it be for a 15 year old high school student to see X billion dollars spent on a second space station or a LISA type interferometer? Post-graduates might get excited over that, but not a 15 year old. I don't think the issue is the availability of terrestrial based science courses or science "tracks" available to kids, I think it's the lack of interest/excitement in these fields that is the limiting factor. A sure fire way to get everyone excited is to send humans to Mars and have an ongoing discussion in the popular media about the challenges and the science that goes into such a project for the entire 3 years it goes on.

I'm very skeptical of the notion that manned space travel can massively increase STEM uptake. Is there any data to suggest this beyond anecdotes? I've had plenty of discussions with colleagues about why they got into science and I can't recall anyone ever saying it was because they saw the Moon landings or were captivated by space, even amongst those working in space science. Of course that's in no means definitive because it's difficult to impossible to track the influences that events have on one persons life. I also wonder if there is some generational bias here, those alive during the space race might have been caught up by it but would a modern generation of children (who grow up in a completely different world) have the same response? I don't know but I'm somehow doubtful it would be exactly the same.

As for interest in science in my experience getting kids interested in science is all about how they are taught it. Schools with big budgets for science lessons, school trips, equipment etc are bound to generate more interest than others. Which gets us back to the question of what could be done with X billion dollars for better science education.
 
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I can't recall anyone ever saying it was because they saw the Moon landings or were captivated by space

Well, I can recall at least one kid that was captivated by the moon landings...Lol

DannyAPOLLO11a.jpg


Schools with big budgets for science lessons, school trips, equipment etc are bound to generate more interest than others.

Is that true? I don't know. Do you really think that if they doubled the size of the science buildings at the local university and doubled the science budget, it would attract more students? Interest wise I mean, forget about, say, scholarships per se. I think what you need to get kids interested in science is the equivalent of a "killer app," so to speak, and that killer app is going to be a manned mission to another world, IMO. Or, really, any manned kind of mission. Even the space station guys are talking to grammer schools and high schools across the country, if you watch the NASA channel. But the low Earth orbit stuff is becoming real tired and uninspired.
 
  • #15
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Seems like Danny Lloyd is more interested in other things on his clothes now :p

http://d2tq98mqfjyz2l.cloudfront.net/image_cache/1351030267710364.jpg [Broken]

With regards to funding yes I do think that better schooling and other programs will lead to more science interest than one big life event. Indeed I'm skeptical of the notion that individual events of this sort can have such a big impact (as opposed to there being a multitude of factors but only the big one is remembered). A big, big reason why I'm a biologist is down to a specific teacher I had in upper school. She made the subject fascinating and was always striving to have practicals wherever possible and get out of the classroom. Several times she mentioned that she asked the school for more materials, equipment and permission to go on trips but they didn't have the funds for it. If they had I have no doubt her lessons would have been even more interesting. Another point on this issue: suppose we do have a group of kids who watch an astronaut walk on Mars, and let's assume that this does inspire them someway. How many of them will make it into STEM fields with regular schooling and programs? Is that one incident going to maintain a lifelong passion?
 
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  • #16
phinds
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It has always seemed to me that you can make a very strong case that unmanned space exploration would have provided a MUCH bigger bang for the buck, and the rest of the money could have been spent on other technological projects and thus we would have produced the same level of technological spinoff as the manned program did. The only flaw in this argument is that it is ridiculous because it would never have happened. Without the space race there is pretty much no possibility that politicians could have / would have diverted so much money to technology.

A manned mission to Mars is even worse in terms of bang for the buck. Whether or not it captures the public's interest enough to allow politicians to fund it remains to be seen. Personally, I think it's a pipe dream to think it will happen any time soon.
 
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don't remember anything about bad management
Franklin Expedition, 1845. Robert Falcon Scott. Is it an impossible lesson? It is very well established that engineering and human ingenuity cannot defeat poor judgment and/or mismanagement. Is a multi- $T demonstration really necessary?

Stimulation of STEM or MINT interest in public schools?
(MINT standing for Mathematics, Engineering (in German "Ingenieurswissenschaften", that's why there's an I in the acronym), Natural Sciences, and Technology,
Great --- the kids will have degrees in Chem. Eng. and know what's happening to the plastic and cans they collect for recycling to pay for the fries they buy at McDonald's, and they'll even understand the automation that's replaced the minimum wage jobs they might have been able to compete for there.

Might be worth hanging on to a few economic resources for a rainy day rather than squandering them all on more pyramids.
 
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Seems like Danny Lloyd is more interested in other things on his clothes now :p

Lol. Well, there goes my theory, looks like Danny is up to other Shenanigans now other than extraterrestrial interests.

Another point on this issue: suppose we do have a group of kids who watch an astronaut walk on Mars, and let's assume that this does inspire them someway. How many of them will make it into STEM fields with regular schooling and programs? Is that one incident going to maintain a lifelong passion?

I think the short answer to this is yes, for some people. How you split hairs and quantify this measure is not so clear. Again, if you read Zubrin or watch any of the Mars society conference presentations, you will see a community there. The moon landings certainly inspired me.

Personally, I think it's a pipe dream to think it will happen any time soon.

Again, disagree with this, I think humanity and the planet is desperate for a real challenge for humanity to undertake. Something on the scale of the moon landings or the first expeditions to the poles or the summit of Everest. All we have now are youtube stunts, wingsuit flyers, and the Jackass movies, that doesn't cut it.
 
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Might be worth hanging on to a few economic resources for a rainy day rather than squandering them all on more pyramids.

That's just the point, how much of the building of the pyramids was actually useful to serve the traversal of the king into the afterworld versus giving a mass of egyptians something to do with their time, that seemed important at least, rather than surf the web and raise their status on social media? I've got a great idea, why don't we take the, say, X billion dollars spent on a manned mission to Mars and use it to "solve" domestic issues like feeding the hungry and curing illnesses? What are we going to get then? A rapid increase in the population to 14 billion rather that 7 billion people depleting Earths resources at an even greater rate with a myopic focus centered on geocentrism? What a manned mission Mars is going to do for the general public, I think, is give people the peace of mind that we as a society are least trying to do something to reach out beyond this planet, even in a token manner, to provide security for the species in case things go badly at home. This has always been the motivation for exploration, it's built into our psyche and it inspires.
 
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Again, disagree with this, I think humanity and the planet is desperate for a real challenge for humanity to undertake.
I admire your optimism but I think you vastly overestimate the public's interest in spending huge sums of money on space. The Cold War made the moon landings an easy sell for Kennedy but there is nothing comparable today.
 
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Again, disagree with this, I think humanity and the planet is desperate for a real challenge for humanity to undertake. Something on the scale of the moon landings or the first expeditions to the poles or the summit of Everest. All we have now are youtube stunts, wingsuit flyers, and the Jackass movies, that doesn't cut it.
Of course we have more than the Jackass movies and wingsuit flyers. Agreed though, you don't see them much on a screen. How about fighting hunger, increasing general health, curing the big deadly diseases? Fighting hunger is usually frowned upon because the challenge seems to big (I think). Is sending a man to our red neighbour a smaller or bigger challenge? Even giving every kid a proper education would be a good start. There are so many ways to spend resources here on our local planet.
 
  • #22
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I admire your optimism but I think you vastly overestimate the public's interest in spending huge sums of money on space.

Well, sadly, you may be right, as Raymond Dart (discover of Taung Child) once said, (paraphrasing) "more people are interested in feeding their bellies than they are in feeding their minds."
 
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I admire your optimism but I think you vastly overestimate the public's interest in spending huge sums of money on space. The Cold War made the moon landings an easy sell for Kennedy but there is nothing comparable today.

Totally agree. The space race was a kneejerk reaction to the Soviets launching Sputnik and the possible national defense issues that stemmed from it. The fact that we've had moon landing technology for how many decades now and we haven't planned to go back means we don't care as much about space travel as we thought. We got some great tech out of the space race, but the public is already complaining about NASA's funding and the trillions we might spend sending a handful of people to Mars. Simply put, we don't care as much about space travel as about our needs here on Earth.

Are the Apollo missions a waste? No. I think it was the excuse we needed to take a chance on some developing tech, like finite element analysis software and other such engineering programs. Without a goal to reach, most engineering companies are content with the status quo. It forced us to mature the tech on the bleeding edge into something we can rely on. I agree we do need something like that, but I don't think we'll have another goal without something as equally influential as the Cold War.
 
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I agree we do need something like that, but I don't think we'll have another goal without something as equally influential as the Cold War.

Well put Tim, but what I see is explanation, not opinion. Where do you think National and NASA resources should be directed to?
 
  • #25
phinds
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There are so many ways to spend resources here on our local planet.
And based on the evidence, it appears that in the USA at this time politicians have little interest in doing more than paying lip service to any of them, other than when it can be shown that they are "bringing home to bacon" for their constituents. Our "leaders" are not leading ... they are much more interested in arguing with each other and getting re-elected than they are in actually helping the country.
 
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Well put Tim, but what I see is explanation, not opinion. Where do you think National and NASA resources should be directed to?

That's really hard to say. I'm not sure we have anything that will band us all together as much as the fear of possibly being attacked without provocation or warning. The energy crisis is the closest I think that we all have in common. I'm personally on the thorium nuclear reactor bandwagon, so I think that ought to be developed. The problem is that it doesn't have any weapons applications (or very few), but I think we could do some pretty cool things with the energy tech. I think that might be attainable in the next 10 years. I'm sure you can spin that by couching it as fuel for more aerospace vehicles or something military or space related.

Maybe we can redirect it into a kind of think tank to develop on some interesting tech from university labs. That might be the way we get the benefits of the Cold War without another one.
 
  • #27
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I think investment in NASA has been very worthwhile. That's not the same as our investment in the Apollo program, though. Investments in NASA have subsidized development of technologies that have been very valuable. Some of those spinoff technologies were a direct result of the Apollo program. Some of those spinoffs would have required a manned space program, even if not specifically a mission to the Moon.

But there is a cost to those investments, since you're dealing with the limited resource of money. Investment in landing a man on the Moon sucked up money that could have been invested in other areas of technological development.

The impact investing in a manned lunar mission was even mentioned in Kennedy's speech to Conress urging us to commit to a manned lunar mission.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread.

Of course, you'll also notice a manned lunar mission wasn't the only part of this program - it was just the centerpiece. Arguably, it's the reason the nation also committed more money to developing communications satellites and weather satellites. Could we have invested just in the communications & weather satellites without the Moon mission part? Sure. Would we have?

Personally, I don't think this is a zero sum game, where money not spent on the space program would have been spent on something equally valuable, or even spent at all. In any event, it's impossible to compare what might possibly have been to the cost/benefit of something that actually happened.

I think we got a very good return on the money we invested into the space program in the 60's and landing on the Moon was the main reason that investment happened.

(And, in the interests of full disclosure, I may be biased by the fact that, not only was I captivated by the space program of the 60's when I was a kid, but I've worked with both weather satellites and communications satellites. The space program has been very good to me.)
 
  • #28
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I think the short answer to this is yes, for some people. How you split hairs and quantify this measure is not so clear. Again, if you read Zubrin or watch any of the Mars society conference presentations, you will see a community there. The moon landings certainly inspired me.

According to wikipedia the Mars society has around 4000 members and 6000 supporters. So 10K people overall, how many of them work in any way in a STEM field? Probably not many. I'm sure it's a great community but not sure how much relevance it has towards inspiring people into science.



Again, disagree with this, I think humanity and the planet is desperate for a real challenge for humanity to undertake. Something on the scale of the moon landings or the first expeditions to the poles or the summit of Everest. All we have now are youtube stunts, wingsuit flyers, and the Jackass movies, that doesn't cut it.

I respect your view, it's honestly fascinating to me but I couldn't' disagree more. A manned Mars mission wouldn't be a real challenge for humanity or something that would in some way elevate people from their current condition. It would be a challenge for one governments space agency and it would give little to nothing to the majority of people. If anything the planet is desperate for what it has been desperate for for a long time: prosperity, an end to poverty/hunger/sickness, security and peace. In my country I'd bet that the majority of people want an end to the poor economic conditions we've been in for years now. They're desperate for an end to ever increasing bills, high levels of underemployment and some actual job security. No one, except the very privileged, feel like the best thing that could happen to their life is for some stranger to put a flag in a red desert.

I'd be quite interested to hear your thoughts on why you think humanity is desperate for a Mars mission or similar? I've come across this sort of belief before and I can't help but feel that it's just an ideological tenant spawned from the space race and mixed with a healthy dollop of frontierism. In my experience a lot of space enthusiasts see utopia as an automatic consequence of space colonisation which just baffles me.
 
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Obviously the scientific/technological ROI is pretty abyssal when it comes to manned missions. Apollo included.

But is that the only measurement of value that matters? Think of the inspiration, sense of achievement and perspective the space race generated. How many kids decided to go into engineering because of the moon-landing? Who was not awed when man first entered space? Isn't the dream that should humanity strive for something bigger than brainless consumerism and petty squabbles worth investing in? I think all of this is the true bang for the buck, though you need to have somewhat of an open mind to see it I think.
 
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If anything the planet is desperate for what it has been desperate for for a long time: prosperity, an end to poverty/hunger/sickness, security and peace. In my country I'd bet that the majority of people want an end to the poor economic conditions we've been in for years now. They're desperate for an end to ever increasing bills, high levels of underemployment and some actual job security. No one, except the very privileged, feel like the best thing that could happen to their life is for some stranger to put a flag in a red desert.

And you think the space-exploration people are unrealistic? Economies go up an down, but in the big picture we are living vastly better now than we did 50 years ago. Sure, it might be painful when a bubble burst, but eventually the problem will be fixed and productivity will start increasing yet again. Now if you think we can ever remove poverty then you are unrealistic: somebody always screws up, and they end up on the bottom for it. Not much you can do but encourage a meritocracy and have a decent welfare program.

And what do you consider "poor economic conditions" anyway? The inability to buy a PS4 for christmas?

If you were thinking about the likes of sub saharan Africa: well, what do you want to do? The main thing that would help them wouldn't be charity but massive investments and people emigrating there to create some kind of educated class and proper governments. Are you thinking of going?
 
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