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How the Critics of the Apollo Program Were Proven Wrong 421

Posted by samzenpus
from the on-second-thought dept.
MarkWhittington writes "A recent story in The Atlantic reminds us that the Apollo program, so fondly remembered in the 21st Century, was opposed by a great many people while it was ongoing, on the theory that the money spent going to the moon would have been better spent on poverty programs. The problem with this view was that spending for Lyndon Johnson's Great Society dwarfed the Apollo program, that the programs in the Great Society largely failed to address poverty and other social ills, and that the Apollo program actually had a stimulative effect on the economy that fostered economic growth and created jobs by driving the development of technology,"
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How the Critics of the Apollo Program Were Proven Wrong

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  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Monday September 17, 2012 @01:57AM (#41359317)

    The next time we have a story about sending more humans/robots to Mars, can we all keep this historical context in mind please?

    Sometimes the best way to help people is to help humanity move forward.

    There is always a hidden benefit to trying things never before attempted beyond just the goal.

    • by siddesu (698447)
      Actually, the article doesn't provide the context you're hoping for. If anything, it makes two points: that the Apollo mission was a political success and that the arguments of its critics -- a majority of the scientists at NASA, it would seem -- have been forgotten. There is nothing in the article that would give substance to the claim that the Apollo program had an economic effect that exceeded its costs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by wermske (1781984) *

      It is an old dilemma... do philosopher kings use the carrot, the stick, or some combination incentive. Very often possibility is better expressed as probability. Put another way, how well is a destination communicated to a mob, how well is a mob moved to action, and the persistence (and consistency) with which the mob continues to be shepherded.

      This when said mob consists of a minimum N+1 political fractures (population samples) with a minimum N^N^X+1 combinations of orthogonal, parallel, and skewed agenda

    • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday September 17, 2012 @06:16AM (#41360333) Homepage

      If we spent only 10% of the Military budget on NASA, we would see most of science fiction become a reality within only 2 generations (If physics plays nicely)
      Instead we dont even spend the amount of money used by the military to air condition tents on NASA. We value killing people far more than advancing technology.

  • Is this some sort of drinking game? Because, AWESOME!

  • The space programs were still a way to distract attention from poverty in both the USA and USSR.

    If we throw more money at NASA, will they think of ways to build public housing projects for poor people in space? At what point does NASA become something more than a jobs welfare program for unemployed engineers?

    • NASA invented charcoal water filters, smoke alarms, ear thermometers and countless other pieces of technology that save lives and improve the heath of millions every day.
  • by phantomfive (622387) on Monday September 17, 2012 @02:13AM (#41359385) Journal
    Johnson supported Apollo and the Great Society. I ran across this quote about the Great Society:

    We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find these answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.

    Imagine if we did the same today, to solve our problems. Then readjusted them once we found out what worked and what didn't. Read the whole speech [utexas.edu], we don't have any politicians today who are anywhere near as eloquent. We are the generation of incompetent politicians.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, Johnson did not care about the space program itself... he cared about the prestige it provided him. As a senator from Texas, he saw the new agency Eisenhower created (NASA) as a new source or pork and prestige. As Kennedy's VP, he was assigned to oversee NASA and he used his muscle to get the astronauts and mission control into his state (hence the "Johnson Space Center"). The reality, however, was that for the long-term, Johnson saw the social spending as vital to future Democrat electoral domin

  • by aglider (2435074) on Monday September 17, 2012 @02:24AM (#41359435) Homepage

    I wouldn't consider any "moon program" a must have for a single nation. Maybe for a world-wide international organization.
    While fighting the poverty, the illiteracy, the lack of food and water and so on, should be a must have, and a no.1 priority, for every single nation and for every international organization.
    IMHO.

  • by viperidaenz (2515578) on Monday September 17, 2012 @02:58AM (#41359565)
    ... and he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and you've fed him for a life time (or until the fish run out).

    Same applies to poverty. Give a bunch of poor people aid and they'll be forever dependent on you. Give them all jobs and they'll forever be a source of tax revenue.
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday September 17, 2012 @02:58AM (#41359567) Homepage

    This is the usual bullshit about how NASA advanced semiconductor and computer technology. About the only real advance to come from NASA was NASTRAN, the first finite-element analysis program. The paper talks about "space and defense". It was DoD, especially the USAF, that pushed semiconductor and computer technology hard. SAGE, the Atlas Missile Guidance Computer, the Navy's nuclear submarine program, and the various huge missile and radar programs of the 1950s and 1960s all advanced computer and electronics technology.

    NASA was a consumer of those technologies, and in terms of units purchased, not a big one. NASA bought a few tens of rockets a year; at the peak, missile programs bought hundreds to thousands.

    NASA was big on materials and weight reduction, and some interesting materials came out of NASA. But more of them came out of the USAF. At the time, much of that was classified. The SR-71 was a titanium aircraft flown in the 1960s. Lockheed's Skunk Works actually pioneered the use of liquid hydrogen as a propellant, although NASA took the credit. Heat shield materials came from missile nose cones.

    NASA was #1 at public relations, and still has a huge PR operation. DoD and the USAF were trying to keep the USSR from finding out what we had. So NASA got to take the credit for a lot of stuff they didn't pioneer.

    After all, Alan Shepard went into space atop a Redstone ICBM booster. John Glenn went into space atop an Atlas ICBM booster. The Gemini program used modified Titan II ICBM boosters. Only Apollo had its own booster.

    • by wienerschnizzel (1409447) on Monday September 17, 2012 @03:37AM (#41359709)

      NASA invested its money and brainpower into many things to push them to higher durability and power and lower size and weight.

      The first practical integrated circuit was developed on the order of NASA for the use on the Apollo guidance computer. (And yes DoD pitched in too on that for their ICBM).

      They worked with Black and Decker on modernizing their first generation of battery operated power tools.

      They contributed to research and funding of countless computing systems to make them smaller and more robust.

      As well as developments of new lightweight durable fabrics and materials for the spacecraft as well as the devices and clothing.

      The list goes on - optics, food preservation and purification, robotics, guidance systems etc. etc.

      • by khallow (566160)
        In other words, NASA had some modest value as an early consumer of various state of the art technologies. My view is that this stuff would have been developed anyway and for less, without NASA involvement.
    • by mccabem (44513)
      Without going and digging up all the proof, my understanding is that 2/3 of Shuttle missons were military in nature. Pretty consistent with what you are saying. The PR neither was nor is just for Russians me-thinks. :)

      -Matt (re-remembering that Eisenhower quote.)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by icebrain (944107)

        What I have found [thelivingmoon.com] is showing around 15 military missions, not nearly the 2/3 figure you're suggesting.

        Now, if we're talking design features of the shuttle, those were heavily influenced by military requirements. The only way NASA could get enough funding to build the shuttle was to ask the military, which imposed significant performance requirements that drove up the weight and complexity of the shuttle. And, while useful, the additional capability was never fully used, nor was it ever used for its intend

  • Job creators (Score:5, Interesting)

    by br00tus (528477) on Monday September 17, 2012 @02:59AM (#41359573)

    The double-think which one has to perform to try to understand talk about job creators is mind-boggling to me. I can barely wrap my head around what mental gymnastics I'd have to do to buy into this nonsense. I look out my window and see birds flying around and eating food. They are free and need no one to "create jobs" for them, yet we humans seem to supposedly need heirs like the Koch brothers and others to create jobs for us. There was a poster in during the strikes and near-uprising in 1968 France (one fifth of France's population was on strike, de Gaulle fled the country) that said "Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n'as pas besoin de lui", but in this day and age of low VC investment, longer hours, boring work, high unemployment etc., people seem more enslaved to the heirs and their broken system then at any time - at least in the USA anyhow. In other countries they're trying to burn down US embassies as I type.

    You used to be able to go to the federal government's BLS and see inflation-adjusted historical average hourly wages, but they removed that functionality, perhaps because it looked so bad. Here's a fellow who did it [blogspot.com] back in 2007, with links to the Federal Reserve and BLS data. As you can see, the hourly wage in the US was higher in the early 1970s then it is now. In fact, it was higher for the whole decade of 1968-1978 then it is now. All of this wonderful economic growth and job creation - what has it done for the majority of Americans over the past decades? Absolutely nothing. It all goes to the 1%, the majority of whom inherited it, if you're to believe the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, Forbes 400 richest list etc.

    Political scientists, historians, astronauts etc. are also pretty much in universal agreement that if communist parties had not come to power in Russia, China, eastern Europe etc. in the 1960s, that there is no way Congress would have ever financed the moon shot. Sputnik and the advancements in science and engineering in the Soviet Union are what loosened the purse strings in the US - the Soviets were winning the Space Race from Sputnik up until the end of 1968 where they were still winning the moon race. By that time the USSR was busy with Poland and Czechoslovakia and the like and Apollo 8 did its moon flyby, the first time the US really pulled ahead in the space race, which was followed by the next important US achievement, Apollo 11. It took the US over a decade to catch up and finally surpass the USSR. Then after a moon flyby and landing, that was pretty much the end of any major space spending. I don't see the point of The Atlantic talking about ancient history - it's not like if the US had any leftover money it would spend it on a project like that, not that it has any spare money.

    • The Illusion Of Prosperity graph and most such graphs don't take into account the fact that (perception of) prosperity is a moving target. We didn't have iPads or Galaxy S3s or electric cars or Twitter in the 70s. Comparing 70s living to today's isn't a fair comparison. Even more pointed comparison would be a king in the 1800s who certainly earned orders of magnitude more than even a poor person today - but still would have literally killed to have a fridge, car and a TV.

      Therefore a graph showing declining

  • by wienerschnizzel (1409447) on Monday September 17, 2012 @03:19AM (#41359657)

    Neil deGrasse Tyson mentioned that in a Science Friday episode that at the time the Apollo program was the biggest thing out there. Every kid wanted to be an astronaut - or at least work in the industry. It inspired a whole generation to be scientists and engineers - that might be even more valuable than the technologies that were directly developed by the program.

    Nowdays there's no such thing in the US. Instead the space program is big in China [wikipedia.org] and a generation of science hungry kids is growing up there.

  • Poverty is an inevitability, not a social ill. What is social ill is the attempt to eradicate poverty at any cost -- since people's capabilities are vastly different, the stratification of a free society is inevitable, so 1) it takes a huge (and unnecessary) effort to bring the so called minimum standard of living to those that are incapable and/or lazy, and 2) the said effort decreases the overall freedom.
  • So if you do something poorly and something else well (maybe on purpose), it follows that the thing done well would be better by itself and not by how you did it? What a load of nonsense.
  • by guttentag (313541) on Monday September 17, 2012 @04:13AM (#41359845) Journal
    The Apollo program's critics said that the massive sums of money that were being spent on going to the moon could be better spent solving problems closer to home, and there's this perception that NASA somehow proved those critics wrong because they achieved something amazing (landing men on the moon). But what benefit has that really imparted to society? Hope? Pride? Entertainment? If that's all it was worth, that's what we have major league sports teams for. That is the argument you will get from critics.

    To counter that argument, let's talk about what else society got from the Apollo program:
    • Integrated circuits [wikipedia.org] benefited from the development of the Apollo guidance computer. Without integrated circuits we wouldn't have personal computers, cell phones, DVD players, video games, GPS and a lot of other things.
    • Fuel cell [wikipedia.org] development got a boost from Apollo funding, but it may be harder to convince the general public of their usefulness because there aren't any commercially-available fuel cell cars on the market, but they're apparently widely used in forklifts at Coca Cola, Whole Foods, FedEx and others where they are cutting down on emissions.

    What else owes its development to the Apollo program, and how does it benefit society? Please, add to this list so we can rebuff the people who say money spent on space is wasted.

    • Integrated circuits benefited from the development of the Apollo guidance computer. Without integrated circuits we wouldn't have personal computers, cell phones, DVD players, video games, GPS and a lot of other things.

      The AGC design was based on the design of the Polaris A-2 guidance system, and originally used discrete circuits. But the time MIT decided to redesign the AGC using integrated circuits - the Polaris A3, with it's IC based guidance computer, was only a few months from it's first flight.

  • From the Atlantic piece:

    "In an age that worships technology, when man is lost among the instruments he has created, the space race erects new pyramids of gadgetry; in an age of materialism, it piles on more investments in things when what is needed is investment in people; in an age of extrovert activism, it lends glory to rocket-powered jumps, when critical self-examination and reflection ought to be stressed; in an age of international conflicts, which approach doomsday dimensions, it provides a new focus

  • by FhnuZoag (875558) on Monday September 17, 2012 @06:01AM (#41360273)

    I sure love the use of the phrasing 'proven wrong' to denote 'dude from a libertarian thinktank wrote a comment piece saying the Great Society failed'.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday September 17, 2012 @08:58AM (#41361313) Journal

    Even if we accept the article's premise(that the 'great society' collection of programs was a failure), the best that that proves is that some contemporary critics of the Apollo program chose dubious grounds for criticism. As we have learned(and, incidentally, only by trying) social engineering is one of the trickier flavors of engineering.

    Where TFA seems to go off the rails a bit is the jump from 'people who think we should have spent the money on 'great society' were wrong because great society failed' to 'Apollo program: Vindicated!'. If you want to assess the worth of a spaceflight R&D program, compare it to other possible spaceflight R&D programs(or to non-spaceflight R&D programs designed to produce interesting technologies: variations on the 'well, set the grad students loose to do basic research' are pretty cheap...)

    As with any sufficiently large engineering project, there were some side effects. Somebody had to build the thing, and certain technological advances had to be made or perfected to get it working; but the same would be true of building a sufficiently large bridge to nowhere. If you actually want to vindicate a space program, you either have to admit that you are doing it because space is pretty cool, or seriously examine it against other possible technology programs, rather than digging up some overt failure to run against...

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