A recent story in The Atlantic, written for the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, reminds us that the Apollo program, that launched expeditions to the lunar surface, have become popular only long after the fact. The moon program was opposed from the far left as a waste of public resources.
The argument went that money spent on the moon landings, which The Atlantic points out peaked at $16 billion in 2008 dollars in 1965, would have been better spent on programs to alleviate poverty and other social ills. The impression was given by liberal critics of Apollo that children were being allowed to starve while money that could have fed them was being spent building moon rockets.
The problem with this argument, whether articulated by the radical musician Gil-Scott Heron in a racist song entitled “Whitey on the Moon,” or in an incoherent screed entitled “Moondoggle” which argued against human space exploration in general and space as a venue for fighting the Cold War, is that it was at variance with objective reality. The Apollo program coincided with the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson’s effort to address a great many social ills, including poverty, by government fiat. The cost of the Great Society dwarfed that of the Apollo program.
The Great Society is an umbrella term for a number of government programs, ranging from Medicare and Medicaid to the National Endowment for the Arts. According to a recent article in The American Thinker, the cost of the War on Poverty, just one part of the Great Society, has been $220 billion per year between 1965 and 1995, for a total of over $6 trillion dollars. The Medicate and Medicaid entitlements has added many trillions more, much of it in the national debt that is currently north of $16 trillion.
What’s more important, the Great Society failed to address the ills it was designed to alleviate and, in some ways, made them worse. In his critique of the Great Society, Richard M. Ebeling argues that the Great Society resulted in the creation of a dependent class, the breakup of social groups and families, inflation, and government deficits. At the same time the social ills that the Great Society was supposed to have alleviate persists.
Ironically, the Apollo program may well have had a more beneficial impact on the same social ills that the Great Society was designed to and failed to alleviate. In a study entitled “The Economic Impacts of the U.S. Space Program.” Jerome Schnee of Rutgers University points out that by driving research and development of technology, NASA has actually increased the Gross Domestic Product out of proportion to the money spent on its programs, creating jobs, and furthering education. Apollo and the programs that followed, denigrated by liberal critics, succeeded where the top down, paternalistic Great Society failed.
One might imagine a counterfactual in which the Apollo program persisted at funding levels it enjoyed at its height, with the subsequent economic benefits. One could even write a book about that.