why so many said that apollo wasn’t worth it

Contrary to popular belief, the Apollo program wasn't all that popular when it was underway.

relaxing astronaut

According to popular legend, Henry Ford once quipped that if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would’ve asked for a faster horse. Nowadays, when companies are all about trying to appear engaged with a customer base, such an attitude is considered downright heretical in business circles but sadly, it does have a very unpleasant ring of truth in the world of science and technology. Were we to go solely by popular opinion when it comes to the space program, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, triumph of all our technology and know-how, the Moon landing, wouldn’t have happened. Why? Because more than half of Americans saw the space program as a waste of taxpayer money and even after the first human walked on an alien world live, on time TV, some 53% thought that the money spent on Apollo wasn’t worth it. Kind of explains the apathy that ended the successful series of Moon landings, doesn’t it? While now, we hold the Moon landings as an event marking one of the pinnacles of our intelligence and abilities as a species, back in the 1960s we thought that the whole thing was a huge waste of time and money that could be better spent elsewhere. Sad, isn’t it?

Of course we can’t simply devote every spare bit of change we have into some transformative project since we don’t always know what line of research is most likely to yield some revolution or a major accomplishment, or just ignore the public’s opinion altogether because it’s their money we’re using. However, we know that much of the public doesn’t know or care very much about how much funding scientists get and if their off the cuff estimates were correct, the national deficit would balloon by another $600 billion a year, enough to cover two or three decades of manned missions to the Moon, Mars, and robotic landings on almost every other notable object in the solar system. If we invested nearly as much as the public thinks we actually do into research and development projects, we could seriously argue that we’d be a deep space-faring species by now. How do we arrive at these fantastic digits? The most probable answer is the one that scares me the most. Many just do not care. At all. Not in the least. And they really don’t want to care. As noted in a recent post, an awful lot of people developed a certain scope of knowledge necessary to function and do their jobs and everything out of this scope is dismissed as unnecessary and better left to those who understand it. Extra education is seldom held in contempt and even then only by fanatical ideologues, but it’s often considered to be unnecessary.

This is the other extreme of the approach to education advocated by humanities scholars; rather than study anything and everything just to study it with no regard for its utility in the real world, study the bare minimum of what you need and nothing else. For scientists and boosters of scientific R&D, that’s a huge problem. Simply explaining yet again how some obscure, seemingly off-the-wall project that has nothing to do with the public’s immediate needs could yield future benefits, won’t work. They don’t care. If it has no immediately recognizable benefit for them, nor fits neatly into a timeline they consider appropriate for a return on a scientific investment, they don’t want to hear it. That brings up the issue of public approval for use of public funds to keep scientific programs running. If we have a large segment of a populace that isn’t sold on a particular set of projects and has very little interest to learn why it’s important, how can taxpayers objectively decide whether to peruse such projects? For example, of what use are atomic scale super-chilled hard drives? Well, they could be used to help medical nanobots of the future store critical data they’ll need and if we don’t fund work on this technology today, we’re pushing the research back. How do we go from a proof of concept 96 atom hard drive to medical nanobots we could sell to the public as a project worthy of their cash? Well, that requires some very long and possibly tedious explanations in which a good chunk of the people have absolutely no interest.

It’s like designing a car for someone who says she needs a new car and tunes you out when you start talking about what it will need to move, but when you say that the brand new engine would cost so much to study and test before it’s built, demands to know just why you’ll be doing what you’re doing on this engine, tuning out yet again when you try to explain. Designing and building engines is not her field you see, it’s yours. But you have to explain how you’ll build that engine and why you’ll do it that way to get the funds to build it. Not a simple task by any stretch of the imagination and one requiring you to communicate in big picture terms, which is an ever more unfamiliar terrain for many academics today buried daily in a sub-branch of a sub-branch of a discipline and studying a topic that’s necessary to the discipline as a whole but very obscure even to experts in the topic represented by this discipline. So for atomic hard drives one could say “we’re trying to find a new way to save lots of money, energy, and create new medical tools by improving how we store important data” and that may work for those working on practical engineering and computing. But what about theoretical scientists working on obscure models that try to add to our understanding of basic sciences which may or may not yield practical benefits? Explaining science isn’t going to get easier and when those to whom you’ll try to explain it often lack the interest in your explanation or learning more about what you’re saying, the task will be harder still.

# space // public funding / realpolitik / research

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