2.5 The true cost of Apollo

The crewed Moon landings did not come cheap. In 1973, the total cost of the Apollo program was reported as 25.4 billion dollars over a ten-year period. In 2004, the Congressional Budget Office estimated this cost to be equivalent to roughly 170 billion in 2005 dollars (House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1974 NASA Authorization, Hearings on H.R. 4567, 93/2, Part 2, page 1271; A Budgetary Analysis of NASA’s New Vision for Space, Congressional Budget Office, September 2004).

The Apollo project was widely perceived as an unsustainable and exorbitantly costly endeavor, despite the fact that the money was all spent on Earth and helped to train a whole generation of scientists and engineers and to develop countless technologies that we still use today. This misperception contributed to the early cancellation of the project once its primary political goal had been achieved.

Through the years, the cost of Apollo and of space ventures in general has been consistently and greatly overestimated by American public opinion. For example, a 1997 poll reported that Americans believed on average that NASA drained 20% of the entire US budget, although the actual figure has always been less than 1%, with the exception of the Apollo era, when it peaked at 2.2% in 1966 (Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of US Human Spaceflight, Roger D. Launius (2003); The Manhattan Project, Apollo Program, and Federal Energy Technology R&D Programs: A Comparative Analysis, Deborah D. Stine (2009)).

By way of comparison, in 2005 the total expenditure for US defense was 493.6 billion dollars, social security outlays were 518.7 billion and Medicare/Medicaid outlays totaled 513 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In other words, in recent years the US spent on defense each year three times the cost of the entire Apollo program.

Looking at it another way, getting to the Moon cost each one of the 202 million Americans alive in 1969 the grand sum of 84 dollars a year for ten years (in 2005 dollars). That’s roughly equivalent to twenty packets of cigarettes per year per person. In fact, two years of US consumer spending on tobacco products, which was 90 billion dollars per year according to 2006 CDC estimates, would pay for the entire Apollo project.

But in politics as in public opinion, perception often matters far more than reality.

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This, in summary, is how a Moon mission was accomplished with 1960s-era technology: high costs, minimal margins for error, high chances of failure, no rescue options, with the whole world watching live on TV and a nation’s prestige at stake. No wonder nobody has gone back to the Moon since.