“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
So John F. Kennedy told a special joint session of Congress on 25 May 1961, and there was much rejoicing. I wonder if they would have been so pleased had they known that the Apollo Programme was destined to cost $135 billion (2006 dollars)?
One thing is for certain. The programme was not value for money. It has been over thirty years since anyone has been back. Apart from a few marginally interesting lumps of rock and an above average film starring Tom Hanks, we have little to show for it. Some of the technology has been used elsewhere, but it would have been cheaper to aim specifically for that technology than to go to the moon to justify it; it’s like justifying the 2012 Olympics on the grounds that it will regenerate East London.
But governments have never let something as mundane as thrift or prudence stand in the way of a costly boondoggle. So, with the scar tissue now barely perceptible on the fingers of the American taxpayer, NASA has announced that it is time to spend another $100 billion planning an initial return to the barren lump of rock. Planning, mind! The actual mission will cost more. And this time, they’re staying. The stuff of science fantasy is coming true as a genuine Moon Base Alpha is to be created. Hundreds of billions of dollars will literally go up in (or rather, on) flames.
And what vital purpose is this base going to serve? Why, it’s going to prepare the way for the first ever manned trip to Mars! I have no figures on what this will cost, but I cannot see how a moon base and a Mars-shot can cost less than $1 trillion. Admittedly, man may not walk on the moon again until 2020, and maybe man won’t set foot on Mars before (for an off-the-cuff date) 2046. But were my back of an envelope guesstimates to be correct, that would entail spending $25bn a year over the next forty years.
I cannot help thinking that there must, must be something better on which to spend a trillion dollars than sending men somewhere that is better suited for (cheaper, more effective) robots. In fact, would the US Government not be better off not spending it at all. Republicans are supposed to believe in small government and fiscal prudence; Democrats in social welfare. But the lure of the boondoggle is always too great for politicians.