Apollo Program Cost: An Investment in Space Worth Retrying?

The topic of returning to the moon has gained great interest in the past months as NASA has indicated that it intends to re-explore our closest space neighbor.  It seems that this has also created quite a bit of interest in our original moon exploration.  The Apollo Program cost and effective gain of this mission served some 40 years ago has caught quite a bit of flak recently.  Was the Apollo Program really worthwhile?  Did sending a man to the moon accomplish anything more than a bit of celebrity in the dark Cold War times?

Let’s take a look at the hard numbers to see how the cost of going to the moon compares to the cost of other projects before we try to tackle the somewhat more subjective concept of what gains can be attributed to going to the moon.  The Apollo Program cost roughly $22.9 billion US dollars, unadjusted. Adjusting for inflation, that makes the total Apollo Program cost $133 billion U.S. dollars in 2008. In simple terms, that’s our total cost to go to the moon.  Consider, however, that this was for a project spanning from 1959 to beyond 1970 with six successful missions. Eventually, Apollo 11 landed humans on the moon.  Consider that some 409,000 laborers were employed by the lunar program either directly by NASA, through outside university research, or contracted workers. How does that compare to the U.S. budget in those years?

US Federal Outlays vs. Apollo Program Cost

Let’s also look at the Apollo Program cost compared to other major government expenditures in U.S. history. This data is adjusted for inflation to 2008 U.S. dollars.

 

Major US Government Expenditures vs. Apollo Program

NASA Budget vs. Other Federal Initiative Costs 

NASA’s total budget from 1959 (the year the Apollo space program missions began) to 1972 (the year of the last Apollo space program mission) was $48.9 billion 1969 US dollars, or $266.4 billion 2008 US dollars.

The US annual federal outlays (the amount of money the country spends per year, which is typically more than our budget) from 1959 to 1972 totaled $1.9 trillion US dollars.  Converting these outlays from each of their years to an inflation adjusted 2008 total brings the outlays to $11.9 trillion.

NASA represented roughly 2.2% of the total US federal outlays from 1959 to 1972.  The Apollo project in the same timeframe accounted for about 50% of NASA’s budget or just 1.1% of US total federal outlays during this timeframe.

The total interest paid on US federal budget debt was $140.3 billion during this timeframe ($870.56 billion 2008 US dollars).  This means that interest paid on debt accounted for 655% more outlays than the cost of the Apollo program in the same period.  For reference, the US paid $252.8 billion in 2008 in interest on the national debt – nearly twice the total cost of the entire Apollo program.

The cost of the Vietnam War from 1965-1975 was $111 billion or $686 billion 2008 US dollars, 516% the cost of the Apollo program.

The final cost for the Interstate Highway System to the Federal government started in 1956 by President Eisenhower was $114 billion by completion in 1991, about $500 billion 2008 dollars, 376% the cost of the Apollo program.

The F-22 Raptor has been another source of much scrutiny in its expense.  The dominant, highly advanced Air Force backed fighter jet program had an estimated cost of $62 billion in 2006, $66.9 billion 2008 US dollars – about half the cost of the Apollo program.  As of this writing, the F-22 has never flown a combat mission.

The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is estimated by the CBO to cost $2.4 trillion by 2017, $1.9 trillion attributed to Iraq.  This is mainly because much of the cost of the war has been financed with borrowed money.

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 has authorized the Treasury Secretary to spend up to $700 billion taxpayer dollars.  It is hoped that the taxpayers will come out of this bailout program without too deep of a loss, that some portion of the expenditures will result in profits to offset the expected losses.  The true cost of the recent Federal bailouts of the financial sector are unknown.  If the program suffers a complete loss, it would represent 526% the cost of the Apollo program.

NASA estimated in 2005 that the cost to return to the Moon would be $104 billion over the course of 13 years.  While these plans have recently come under great question, NASA has already invested some $7.7 billion in the project.

Discussion

It is important to consider what the country has gained from these expenditures and compare those to the cost ratio for each project.  I’m going to compare the gains of the Apollo program against those of some of the other large projects highlighted above, so let’s define some of the Apollo Program gains first.

Apollo Program cost & Benefit

Apollo Program: Mission to the Moon

Aside from all of the historic achievements that made it into the history books through the Apollo Program, America had real, tangible gains from the investments made in the project.  For one, the Apollo program was a major stepping stone into future beyond Earth projects.  Much of the hardware developed during the Apollo era was used in our first space station, Skylab.  Skylab produced many valuable results based on its solar observatory and various experiments performed onboard, none of which would have been possible without the Apollo program.  Skylab is just one of many spacecraft that would not have been possible without the knowledge gained with the Apollo program.  The 1975 space docking with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was one of the major steps forward in rebuilding relations between the US and the USSR, eventually resulting in the end of the Cold War.  As far as more particular, physical products that would not have been possible, a variety of breakthroughs from early breast cancer detection to the accelerated development of integrated circuits were birthed by the Apollo program.

F-22 Raptor Project Cost & Benefit

F-22 Raptor Program Cost

The F-22 program has provided the US with a spectacular dog-fighter, but we simply don’t currently live in an era that America has a direct competitor in this space.  The fighter is so head and shoulders above the competition that it has no competition.  Our country finds itself fighting against enemies where the F-22 simply does not make sense as a reasonable expenditure.  However, there is value in the US maintaining it’s technological lead in military hardware.  We are so far ahead of other countries when it comes to conventional armies because of our constant investment.  I can only hope the day comes that this is no longer a valid concern as the world unites to fight larger foes: environmental breakdown, starvation and over-population of our planet to name a few.

Interest on U.S. Debt Cost

Taxpayers are funding horrendous amounts of interest on the debt of the current generation and its ancestors.  A single year of interest paid currently would pay for the entire original Apollo program or the cost of the future Moon program and still have enough to produce most of the F-22 project.  While our country needs to get its debt wrangled, missing out on solid investments that pay dividends is foolhardy.  If we can pay out a few hundred billion dollars to reform health care and save the nation a few trillion dollars in the process – that’s an investment worth making.

U.S. Interstate Highway System Cost & Benefit

Federal Interstate Highway System Cost

The Interstate Highway System has provided tens of thousands of government sponsored jobs over the decades and has lead to much of the growth of the countries entire economic system.  Without this interstate highway system, how would our country have been able to move its goods to different regions for consumption and manufacturing?  It seems to me that the program was a bit of a necessity but another means of transportation was not weighed properly; railroads.  Prior to the Interstate Highway System, America revolved around the rails.  Rails were much more widely used to transport goods and people around the country prior to the subsidies of the highway system which eventually lead to the somewhat sorry state of our current rail system.  Look to Europe for an example of a system still capable of using a modicum of transportation techniques across a fairly large distance.  While the highway system was vital to the culture and development of the US, I would say that a slightly more balanced development of the highway system alongside the rail system could have lead to a strong, less car-dependent country.

Vietnam War Cost & Benefit

It’s a bit hard to describe the gains from the Vietnam War as we certainly lost many brave souls in the conflict.  The US was able to gain military experience that lead to a more thorough victory in Desert Storm.  During this period, the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21 and the military draft was eliminated, moving to an all volunteer system, after the war ended.

U.S. Economic Stabilization (2008 Recession) Cost & Benefit

The current state of the economy is still in question.  Would our nation still be on the somewhat reasonable economic footing it has without the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 that cost taxpayers up to $700 billion?  It’s hard to say, we can’t rewind time, toss out the policy, and see what would have happened.  Economists generally agree that the Great Depression of the 30’s arose so strongly because of the hands-off approach of the governing body at the time.  With the country facing a dire recession, this government has taken a much more hands-on approach with a variety of bailout-related acts being passed in an attempt to stabilize the country’s weakening economy.  Only time will tell how successful these programs have been.

Iraq and Afghanistan Wars Cost & Benefit

Iraq and Afghanistan War Costs

As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still in progress, and the entire notion of our country even entering these wars has thoroughly divided much of the US population, I’ll attempt to stick to the facts.  The wars are estimated to cost the country some $2.4 trillion, nearly twenty times the cost of the Apollo program.  The human cost in Iraq is estimated at over 100,000 lives, with over 30,000 being Americans.  There’s been thousands more casualties in Afghanistan.  Economically, we’ve gained greater access to natural resources in the region (oil).  We’ve prevented the growth of radical anti-Americanism in some specific regions but many would argue that the whole ordeal has also created a negative attitude towards the US.

Did the Apollo Program cost produce a worthwhile Return on Investment?

The jobs created, the technology gains, the intangible feeling of love for the country, American ideals, the future of generations and hope for spreading humankind through the galaxies are just some of which was inspired by and created from the Apollo space program missions.  I find it difficult to argue against the comparatively low cost of the Apollo Program, especially when looking at other significant expenditures taken on by the U.S..  Why are we so worried about attempting to push the envelope further with more space exploration?  The future Moon landing project is just a stepping-stone for Mars and beyond.  Do you really believe humankind will survive on Earth into perpetuity?


Part Two: This analysis was continued with an essay follow-up: the Space Exploration’s Future: Apollo Program and SpaceX.


on June 24, 2013
Last modified on February 2, 2017
Categorized as , ,

  • Name

    What is this? Who are you? Why are you on my computer screen?

    • Real Person

      “Name”?! That doesn’t sound like a real name!

  • Sceptic

    How “technically speaking” did the US manage to prevent the North Vietnamese into South Vietnam?

    • chrisrcooper

      Sceptic,

      Thanks for identifying the confusing phrasing. It was a poor attempt at relating the North/South conflict with Communist encroachment in the world, where the US delayed the North’s advance. I’ve removed the offending sentence from the article.

  • Caddy Jim

    The US Waste Money All The Time But Some In Gov Have Benn Cutting Gov Funding For R&D & Other Public Woks Building &/Or Fixing Dams Bridges Roads Ect In Favor Of Turning More & More Over To The Private Sector. There’s Just Some Things That Shouldn’t Be Based On Profits. Privatizing Much Of The Military Is Partly Why The IRAQ WAR Cost So Much More Than The Vietnam War Which Was A Much Hotter WAR. The BUSH Administration Used The Private Sector & Contractors. Doing Jobs The Military Use To Do Cheaper With Better Outcomes. They Were Also Able To Skew The American Death Tolls By Not Including Contractors Ect.
    So Should We Revise The Numbers From Vietnam & Other Past Wars Based On Their JOB & What They Were Doing When Killed In WAR???

    • Richard Skarsten

      Oh god.. Its been two years and no one has commented this atrocity misuse of grammar. My OCD is not going to take it anymore! Stop it, just, STOP IT 😉

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  • moonwatcher2001

    There was a study done by the OMB or CBO in the 1970s (I think) that evaluated the returns to our economy from Project Apollo indicating that we received somewhere between four and seven dollars for every dollar spent in the form of new technologies, new scientific discoveries, new materials science, manufacturing and management paradigms for doing large projects, electronics, and medical imagining (CAT scans and NMRIs), etc.

    I have heard of this study for many years, but can anyone provide a link to it? I would like to use it to refute those who say Project Apollo was a waste.

    • You may be thinking of this:

      “A Midwest Research Institute (MRI) study of the relationship between R&D expenditures and technology-induced increases in GNP indicated that each dollar spent on R&D returns an average of slightly over seven dollars in GNP over an eighteen-year period following the expenditure (3). Assuming that NASA’s R&D expenditures produce the same economic payoff as the average R&D expenditure, MRI concluded that the $25 billion (1958) spent on civilian space R&D during the 1959-69 period returned $52 billion through 1970 and will continue to stimulate benefits through 1987, for a total gain of $181 billion.”

      https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/economics.html

      There’s a bit more from the Freakonomics folks here, though no original source cited aside from the NASA person stating it:
      “We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.”

      http://freakonomics.com/2008/01/11/is-space-exploration-worth-the-cost-a-freakonomics-quorum/