On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin fulfilled the dreams of generations as they stepped out of the thin protective shell of their lunar lander and onto the alien surface of our moon. For the first time in history, mankind occupied not one, but two separate and distinct celestial bodies, making their achievement not just a Cold War era victory over the Soviets, but a broader victory for all of humanity, past, present and future.
The mighty Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built, had ferried the astronauts all the way to their far flung destination, and famously, the crew managed the entire feat with a great deal less computing power than we each now carry in our pockets.
The whole mission was an incredible feat of engineering, perseverance, and innovativeness; but from our vantage point here at the tail end of 2019, all that fancy tech has a distinctly retro flair… Nowadays we have Disney-specific streaming platforms, cars that drive themselves, and a billionaire that owns his own rocket factory. With all the of advances that we’ve made in the decades since Apollo, cruising to the moon seems like it should be about as easy as running to the grocery store; and yet despite our smart phones and parkour robots, we can’t seem to match the technological achievements first pulled off in the same year that hippies were hanging out in Woodstock. What gives?
The 1960s were a wild time
The truth is that the success of the Apollo missions can be attributed to far more than dedicated scientists and researchers. It took a unique combination of public support, military necessity, political power, and a very real threat to the American way of life to make Apollo 11 happen. The Apollo missions were a product of their geopolitical time, when America found itself losing the space-race to a communist nation in a very public way.
Each Soviet success in space acted as a billboard looming over the capitalist, democratic values of the United States that was still lagging in second place. Each Soviet success proclaimed the efficacy of the Soviet economic and political system. As a result, Apollo became a priority not just for the sake of national pride, but in a very real sense, for national security.
Today, the world isn’t quite as simple as it was in 1969 (at least when it comes to politics and space). Despite all our technological advances and our economic prosperity, there remain significant hurdles between us and a return trip to the moon… and some of them are of our own doing.
It’s not just about money (but it’s mostly about money)
At the height of funding in the 1960s, NASA accounted for around 4% of the national budget, whereas today the number tends to float around .4%. Despite the reduction in funding, however, the cost of getting to the moon hasn’t actually changed all that much. According to a 2005 NASA estimate, a new moon program would cost an estimated $104 billion — which, adjusted for inflation to 2019 money equates to around $133 billion. The Apollo program, when adjusted for inflation to match, cost Uncle Sam about $120 billion in todays dollars.
“NASA’s portion of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said during a congressional testimony in 2015. “For the past 40 years it has remained below 1%, and for the last 15 years it has been driving toward 0.4% of the federal budget.”
Why would it cost around the same to get back to the moon after we’ve already invented a means to do so? Well, that’s largely due to the shortsightedness of the Apollo program itself (which is something that pains me to say as a guy with an office full of Apollo memorabilia and a love so deep for the program that I’ve covered it twice for Popular Mechanics). In effect, Apollo saw itself as a one-off enterprise dead set on achieving victory as quickly as possible. A follow-on program was a luxury they simply didn’t have time to consider.
“Instead of logical steps to build a sustainable model for continual access and operations on the moon, it was more of a leap to the surface of the moon,” says Blair DeWitt, CEO of Lunar Station Corporation (LSC), a moon data startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This abnormal market structure removed the means to build the supply chain needed to support continual transportation of equipment, materials, and people to the moon.”
So the United States would need to start from scratch in many (but not all) facets of the endeavor, making it a fairly equal financial undertaking in a world where NASA’s budget is nothing like it used to be, and public support for NASA and influx of funding into space programs has dwindled.
Make sure to check out “Why can’t we get back to the moon? Part 2” in the next few days, where we’ll dip our toes into simple topics like presidential politics and rocket science.