If we can put a man on the moon, will it be worth it?

The Apollo missions live in the memories of fewer and fewer people but their legacy continues to inspire people born generations after the first steps on another world occurred. Today many look back on them with a sense of wonder and astonishment but even as the missions were about to start very few looked favourably upon them. They were criticised on their purpose, on their cost and on their motives, but what was the legacy of these missions, what did we gain from stepping foot where no man had stepped before.

Why go

At the beginning of the 1960’s the Soviet Union were the dominant country when it came to space. They had the first satellite, the first animal in orbit and the first astronaut. As a mild jab, on a visit to the white house, Russian diplomats gifted Kennedy’s daughter a white puppy who was the daughter of Strelka, one of the first animals into space. Many thought that the Russian dominance of space was unassailable. However, Kennedy had a vision, he was America’s “philosopher of space”, their “poet of space” and with the moon as a target any Russian accomplishment short of that could be shrugged off even if the US hadn’t accomplished it themselves. In summing up one of the reasons America had taken on such a bold mission Kennedy told a story that encapsulated the spirit of the endeavour; “Frank O’connor tells in one of his books how as a boy he and his friend would make their way across the countryside and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too difficult to get over they would throw their hats over the wall and then they had no choice but to follow. This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space.”

Human spaceflight isn’t worth the expense

Much criticism of Apollo was levelled at its cost. The resources could be spent better at home, in fact the Reverend Ralph Abernathy was leading a picket over the cost of the programmes the day before Apollo 11, asserting what many were feeling, that “The money for the space program, [Abernathy] stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless”. Just how many resources were pumped through the Apollo programme and were they really excessive given the benefits? The resources came in two main areas, people and money. The scale of human effort is beyond almost anything we can comprehend, every hour of spaceflight took over 1 million hours of ground work, the equivalent of more than the entire work lives of 8 people and over three times as many people worked on Apollo as on the Manhattan Project. As for the spending, in 1961, when the missions were announced, NASA spent $1 million for that year, by 1966 there were spending $1 million every three hours on Apollo, 24 hours a day. In total Apollo cost less than $20bn ($127bn in todays dollars). This seems like a vast amount of money, money one may think was taken from other, potentially much more worthy projects. However, while it may well be true that this money came from somewhere it would be less true to imagine this money was preventing poverty from being fixed or schools from working, that would be like saying art museums cause poverty. To put this amount into context, Apollo cost around $3bn a year vs the $9bn a year spent on tobacco products at the time or vs the $40bn Vietnam cost in 1968-69. Not only was the expenditure of Apollo below many other endeavours but 70% of the money NASA spent went on salaries and benefits, only 8% went on consumables that would be thrown away and 12% provided permanent infrastructure. Much of this expense was thus channeled back into the economy or provided infrastructure of lasting utility. It is worth noting that George Mueller, one of the chief engineers for the programme, never considered the Apollo missions to be ‘crash’ missions where you are given a very high budget and have to reach a goal very quickly. He mentions that between the decision to go to the moon and reaching it took 8 years which was at the time the longest of any major R&D programme in US history. Also it was not a blank check programme and he and others had to spend vast amounts of time fundraising and trying to get enough appropriations. If one criticises the costs on the basis that the speed of the mission would have increased them vs a more leisurely rate Mueller again argues that there was sound economic reason and justification for maintaining the lunar program schedule. He mentions that he had experienced that development time extents to meet delivery milestones, his variation of Parkinson’s law, and so extending the target landing date wouldn’t reduce costs by reducing pressure but increase them. One cost argument is almost certain to be lost however, that of manned spaceflight. Adding humans to the equation dramatically increases not only your costs and complexity but also the chance for tragedy. The scientific benefit of adding humans to the mix is almost certainly outweighed by these costs and only one thing can likely be said in defence of adding humans in. They may have not made it past a cost benefit analysis but that analysis may well have never happened if there wasn’t a chance to beat the soviets to the moon, it is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world and allowed the momentum for the project.

On a note that is less defensive over the costs and more active in assessing their payoff one that stands out is that of the moon landing’s impact on the acceleration of technology. The race to the moon may not have ushered in the space age but it did help to usher in the digital age. At the beginning of the space missions the spacecraft ran on something called rope-core computing. It was called this because the software and computer programmes were quite literally woven, with needle and thread, around magnets to create a series of ones and zeros that would execute the software. In this case software and hardware were the same entity. This may seem crazy now but at the time this was the densest memory available, between 10-100 times more efficient than other types. However, this was by no means a sustainable way to continue. One of the NASA’s largest contributions to the advancement of technology came from their usage of integrated circuits these were such a new technology that even IBM didn’t use them in their computers in the early 1960s. Most companies stuck to transistors as they were far cheaper and at the time more reliable, MIT, to help NASA, ended up with an integrated circuit computer that would have cost around half a million dollars today, there was little chance of industry spending this much on unproven technology back then. Integrated circuits were so new in fact that in 1962 the federal govt, really only NASA and the Airforce, brought 100% of integrated circuits made in the world, by 1965 it was 72% however product had increased by a factor of 20. The requirements for precision, accuracy and cost efficiently helped drive the price of integrated circuits down by 90% in 5 years and make them more reliable. After all, these chips were going to be responsible for human lives, not to mention the aspirations of a nation. Alongside computer chips NASA was also responsible for revolutionising weather forecasting, global communications, nickel-cadmium batteries as well as other areas. Would we have these advances were it not for the Apollo missions, likely yes, but is it true that these missions pushed us on a much accelerated path towards one of the greatest changes in the structure of the economy we have seen, also yes. It was computer chips that flew us to the moon that created the market for computer chips that did everything else. As Charles Fishman writes “The computer chips that flew to the Moon crated the market for the computer chips that did everything else”.

In the end Apollo led nowhere

If we look around us we see little of the promise Apollo seemed to hold. Travel into space is still the domain of technology and a few astronauts, travel beyond low earth orbit the realm of even fewer scientific probes and not a single human since the last Apollo mission. If the missions were meant to herald in a new era of human-space interaction it seems like they have dramatically failed. Not only have we not gone back to space in the ways of Apollo since its last mission but even by the last mission people had seemingly lost interest in it, 94% of Americans watched the first moon landing, 3 years later for the last moon mission more people watched the weekly sitcoms. There are a few potential reasons for this:

Firstly, once Meuller left, NASA lost a degree of its dynamism and push. Mueller admits that his methods very much had to be forced onto NASA and did not grow organically, for example he drafted in over 400 active service military men into a civilian agency, against much push back, and also notes that he had to run a lot of its standard procurement via ‘black’ procurement processes just to get anything done. It would be easy to understand how this aura of necessity and importance was more difficult to maintain after NASA had achieved its goal.

Secondly, most large nonmilitary projects, (the transcontinental railroad, the panama canal, the interstate system) served an economic purpose. Even most explorers of the sailing ship era were on economic missions trying not just to understand the dimensions of the world but also claim territory and resources. Apollo wasn’t like this, we didn’t go to the moon looking to mine it or establish trade routes to far flung space civilisations, we went largely out of curiosity and competition. The nature of these two forces tend to lead to either satisfaction or failure. As mentioned above, people lost curiosity quickly and on the competition side, Neil Armstrong may as well have said ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, and one giant win for the USA’. Despite what one now sees as being its economic impact at the time this was limited, if not negative. This was likely to have been a contributing factor as to why the missions and further development of space was lacklustre, there wasn’t a clear point to it.

Before the Apollo missions technology had largely been a force of destruction, a force of war. The atomic bomb, intercontinental missiles, aircraft carriers, were all high forms of technology but their images were less than pristine. The missions helped change this and allow technology to be seen more as a tool for good and tool that could help improve the lives of ordinary people over time, especially though accelerating computing. Also, there was the sense of winning. After all, this was a space race and America had come out on top, at the time this was not just a win for America but for the whole concept of democratic leadership the world over. This effect has only grown with time. The Apollo missions have ascended into something of a mythology for America and even if something like them would never occur today the fact that they once did seems to bring a whole nation pride and a whole world a sense of what can be achieved with hard work and ingenuity.

It is worth considering, briefly, the argument that it wasn’t going to the moon that derailed human exploration of space, it was the way we did it. If you were imagining a 50 year arc of human space travel you would likely have made different choices than the ones made by the Apollo team, you may have placed more emphasis on cost reduction and reusability, you may have placed emphasis on establishing space stations and ways to shuttle goods around in space. This criticism is however ahistorical, it supposes that there was an alternative path that could have been tracked along and that it was simply chosen to take a different one. Furthermore, the US government, or any government, has seldom shown this kind of forward thinking and it is likely without such a concrete goal we wouldn’t have got there.

Nasa was not only a technological triumph but an organisational one George Mueller and Bill Tindall brought in systems of rigour and efficiency that few civilian or military organisations had then or now and marshalled these techniques towards their great aim. Some of the practices are less likely to be able to be copied by most organisations, but many hold great value in being adopted by a wider audience.

Bill Tindall
George Mueller


Mueller brought in all-up testing a practice he borrowed from the Airforce’s Minuteman program. This was a controversial decision, it meant that tests were carried out on entire systems rather than a multitude of smaller tests on subsystems. Mueller attested that this was critical to keep the project on track and his success criteria was two successful flights in all up mode. Even he admits this was a gamble, if things went wrong with this method of testing there would be few else to blame except him, it did not, however, go wrong. He also implemented open ended mission concepts during testing to allow the achievement of as many objectives on each flight as possible. Each mission was a research experiment and planned alternative procedures could be changed mid test. Both of these were techniques not traditionally carried out, especially outside of military, this was however a challenge on the scale not traditionally carried out. Aside from the testing Mueller also introduced alternative efforts in development of some systems so contractors would all be competing for the same job, this concurrent development of critical subsystems was the best way to meet time and cost objectives, again there were objections to this, from those in Apollo about the cost, and from contractors about the fairness but in the end this proved crucial to enabling the missions to stay on target. This concurrent development is something some people, like Bill Gates, are looking at today in an effort to find a workable vaccine for Coronavirus. By funding 7 different vaccines billions will be spent in pursuit of solutions that prove fruitless but given the pressures of the situation it seems like few alternatives will be as effective.


It was not just testing that was different about the Apollo missions, at its peak it employed close to half a million people and used contractors in every state, a deliberate move to boost support from the government. To tame this complexity Mueller introduced a number of new initiatives; he established an industry Apollo executives group, a technique borrowed from Minuteman. For this group he asked the CEO’s of each major contractor to serve as members, he wouldn’t hesitate to call the CEO of Boeing and ask why a valve in an engine failed in a test, at first the CEO’s would have to answer that they had no idea but they became much more involved as time went on. Another aim of this group was to ensure that people within contractors organisations would, should their work be good enough, have the opportunity for their boss’ boss’ boss to see their work, Mueller deliberately engineered it this way to boost moral and energy for all those involved in the programme. One story that illustrates this point about contractor effort better than any other is that of the Lunar rover. The idea for a rover had been scrapped long before the planned launch date, it was expected that it would add too much extra weight and cost too much. Two engineers from General Motors (GM), however, weren’t satisfied with this and despite the official NASA line being that there would be no lunar rover they set about designing a fold up model that could fit into an empty cargo area on the shuttle. They did this with only GM’s money, unfunded by NASA, and with the likely scenario that NASA would stick to their no rover decision. They had decided though that if there was even the slimmest chance of a vehicle speeding around the surface of the moon it would be a GM vehicle. Sure enough they managed to convince NASA to adopt their design and in April 1969 just weeks before the launch the project office for the lunar rover was established and sure enough they got a GM vehicle on the moon.

Mueller also created a matrix management system whereby teams in the multiple organisation centres around the USA reported both to Mueller’s HQ and to their centers bosses and required different teams in different NASA centres to communicate constantly with their functional counterparts. This aimed to allow the fastest dissemination of information to the relevant people who were required to be notified of changes.

Moving from the macro to the micro we see Bill Tindall, one of the chief engineers of the programme. He was famed for his ‘Tindallgrams’ which were memos he wrote outlining certain problems and questions to do with the programme. He was prodigious with these, writing over 1000 during the Apollo missions, and his level of detail was so exacting that no executive working on Apollo would have their secretaries summarise the memos. No issue was too small for these memos. One memo detailed how everyone would count how many times a spaceship had orbited the moon, another would ask the question of whether anyone had actually written down how to find the moon. He wrote his memos also to get people thinking about what they had to do as he had a deep philosophy of ‘getting a day’s work done each day’ and so he was very mindful that people had to figure out what a day’s work was in order to be sure they could get it done.

Lessons for the future

An Apollo mission for X is an often thrown around saying but it is important to understand the specific confluence of factors that all had to be true for this to be such a successful series of missions. Firstly, these missions were rather unique in the sense that they had no real economic incentive, instead they were primarily driven by international competition. Whether there is still a climate for this kind of rivalry today is unclear, there are definitely international rivalries, China and the US being the obvious example, but it seems less obvious that these rivalries would boil over in the way they did during the 1960’s. The missions were also aimed at a very clear goal, a goal that, while difficult, had an engineering solution and a definite outcome. It would be hard to get to the moon but we would be able to tell if we got there and once we did it would be unlikely we would lose the ability to do so. There are many problems today that we might hasten to call for an Apollo type effort for, after all people were doing this during the programmes themselves. The trope of ‘if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we ….’ feed the poor, educate our children, reduce inequality, became so common that it went from catchy to stale before man had even landed on the moon. But many of these problems don’t fall into the cleanness of an engineering issue. If poverty could be prevented for $127bn and 9 years of work it would seem like a more than reasonable trade off, but it can’t. Social problems have plagued societies since civilisation began. Poverty, inequality and other issues are not one final push away from being solved but rather are issues that will almost certainly remain for the foreseeable future, to be managed and have improvements made upon but it is unlikely we will ever solve them. Furthermore these issues have the issue of not just being societal but fuzzy, getting to the moon is discrete, we step foot in its dusty surface or we don’t, poverty, not so much, as people get richer poverty moves, we may be able to get rid of absolute poverty but relative poverty, that’s a different question. With these things in mind it is important to realise how unique the missions were and how many issues we face may be ill suited to a programme like Apollo. Hopefully, once this is more clear we can focus on the problems that a programme like Apollo truly could help (for example vaccines).

Another lesson for the future is that of the power of a narrative and a singular goal. Even if one feels like Apollo didn’t accomplish as much as it could have it is hard to think of it without it conjuring up a feeling of awe and wonder, and for many a deep feeling of pride. It is important to realise that what can bring nations together or create a feeling of accomplishment need not serve any tangible purpose at the time, if ever. The HMS Resolute was a British Navy barge rigged for Artic exploration, in the 1850’s, that got trapped in the ice and abandoned. Found the next year by an American whaling crew the US government decided to refurbish it and sail it back to Britain as a present. This was during a time of heightened tension between the two countries and this present was noted as being partially responsible for an easing of these tensions. The ship served in the Navy until 1879 where it was decommissioned and out of its timbers the Resolute desk, that sits in the Oval office, was crafted. Gestures need not serve economic purposes to foster greater unity, one could imagine, as some have proposed, that a new international space mission, say to build a manned lunar base, while not serving much economic purpose could well create a greater sense of international togetherness. It is tricky to tell though whether projects like this would be able to go forward today. Americans constantly questioned why we were going to the moon and only 39% said they favoured landing on the mood even as the landing itself was only weeks away and Mueller has said that it would be much more difficult to fund a project like this in today’s political climate. Neither of these facts would help the cause of moving forward with a project that could easily be seen as a vanity one even if it could have uncertain but potentially large benefits towards international relations.

Some lessons that can be used from these missions with little doubt are the organisational ones. For example, Mueller’s organisation structure and his methodology for enabling that everyone who required sufficient information being able to get it as quickly as possible would be a very useful case study to apply to current Coronavirus planning. The missions also had an extreme focus on error, ‘Black Saturdays’ were introduced where the whole project was reviewed and any responsibility for solving particular problems was assigned. Mueller had similar meetings focused not on ‘reporting progress’ but making clear the problems. This practice while used in many organisations is still likely under-utilised by many. There was also a high degree of legibility, look at Kevin Kwok’s writing for more on this, where all the people at the higher levels of the organisation had a clear picture of why they were doing what they were doing and how it fit into the larger picture, this was largely due to Mueller insistence on having a systems management approach to the project. This had tangible benefits of allowing him to be able to contact anyone he needed to and be able to ask them specific questions they may not have had any reason to know about had he not specified on people understanding the criticality of each role they were playing.

The legacy of Apollo is a tricky one to pin down, by some direct measures it seems like the great success or the great failure, by indirect measures it seems to have had enduring benefits and yet one of the key organisers of it said it would be unlikely to have a programme like this funded in today’s world, at least by governments. What has led to this change is more than I wish to cover here but it is my belief that a return to this Apollo way of thinking, where we undertake projects that may be labelled as ‘vanity’ ones but which require us to push the limits of what we are capable of, especially if done in a more internationally cooperative rather than competitive setting, could have vast benefits for the future of our technology and international relations for decades or more to come.

* This was influenced by Doing the Impossible George E. Mueller and the Management of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program by Arthur L. Slotkin & One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

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