Posted by: bkivey | 20 July 2013

A Small Step, A Giant Leap, And Running in Place

Neil Armstrong with footprintToday marks the 44th anniversary of the first time a human set foot on another world, and for those of us who watched it, a defining moment in our lives. Some 435 million people, or 11% of the world’s population at the time, watched Neil Armstrong take that giant leap. I’ve felt a little sorry for those not old enough to remember this watershed event, as humanity staked it’s first small claim to it’s birthright.

Even at the time, there were many who thought the  space program in general, and the Apollo program in particular, to be a waste of resources.  Often was heard the cry “This time and money would be better spent on the poor” or “As long as we have (some social problem), we shouldn’t be spending money on space”. Even as a child, I thought that these objections had been raised since the dawn of time. Humanity hasn’t changed.

During the 11-year Apollo program, the US put 12 men on the Moon,  and lost three men. Along the way, a lot of expensive equipment was sent to the bottom of the ocean, burned up in the atmosphere, flung off into solar orbit, or left on the Moon. We did get the Command Modules back, along with several hundred pounds of lunar rock.

So on this anniversary I thought I’d take a look at the numbers for Apollo versus what the Federal government spent on entitlements during the Apollo program.

The Apollo moon program ran from 1961 to 1972. This includes the four manned test flights, six successful Moon landings, and one aborted mission. The cost figure of merit most often cited for the program is $25 billion, or about $155 billion in 2010 dollars. That alone is astounding, considering it’s about 1/6 what the 2009 ‘stimulus’ cost, and we have, um, exactly what to show for that?

Between 1961 and 1972 the Federal government spent approximately $3.2 trillion (with a ‘T’) in 2010 dollars on Federal transfer payments to individuals. These payments include Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and various welfare programs. So over that time frame, the Apollo program was 5% of what we spent on entitlement programs. The average US population for the period was about 200 million, so Apollo cost a total of  around $775 per person over the 11 years, while entitlement programs cost every man, woman, and child about $16,000.

What did we get? Well, in 1973, most of the people on welfare in 1972 were still on welfare. When Apollo closed, we’d done something unprecedented in human history, and had a myriad of technologies, some of which drove the economic expansion of the 1980’s, to show for it. It would have been cheap at twice the price.

More to the point, Apollo showcased the very best of humanity: the drive to explore, the risk-taking, the collaborative effort, the confidence to fling ourselves into the unknown as soon as we are barely able to do so. And while I understand the need for social safety nets, I’ve had to avail myself of them at times, providing a hand up too often turns into a hand-out. Providing people with a living brings out the worst in people: the selfishness, the pettiness, the natural human instinct to resent those who aren’t giving you something. A permanent underclass who’s more interested in what others can give them isn’t going to be too interested in reaching for the stars.

But if we stay on this planet, and tend only to the needs of the moment, sooner or later we’re going to cease to exist. The methods of extinction are many, but there is only one real option to preserve the species. On the anniversary of the day our universe became a little bit larger, let us not choose to run in place.

On the Methodology

This is a blog post, not a research paper. I just wanted to get an idea for the thesis, not perform an exhaustive analysis. The figures for the Apollo program are widely available from reputable sources. The estimate for total Federal entitlement spending was derived by taking the difference in spending between 1972 and 1961 and developing a slope-intercept formula. I then integrated that formula from 0 (1961) to 11 (1972). The area under the curve should be the total amount of entitlement spending for the period. For the average US population, I added the 1961 population to the 1972 population and divided by 2. Sure, these are rough figures, but I think they’re reasonable, and the percentages should hold.

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