by Christopher Rota
figures by Hannah Zucker
When the first Apollo program astronauts set foot on the Moon in 1969, their footsteps inspired a generation. This opened a new realm of possibility for what humans can achieve with the necessary motivation and resources. Now, just over 50 years later, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has put the wheels in motion to lay down a fresh set of footprints on the lunar surface through its newly christened Artemis program.
Named for the Greek goddess of the moon (and twin of Apollo, according to lore), Artemis is quickly shaping up to be the more ambitious of the two siblings. Not only seeking to put the first woman on the Moon, the program will also include the first manned landing on the Moon’s uncharted South Pole, as well as the establishment of a “gateway” space station that will orbit the Moon and serve as a springboard for future lunar missions. The Artemis mission will also serve as an opportunity to test and refine the technologies necessary to support humans on long space journeys, such as the three-year trip required to reach Mars.
NASA’s claims that it can achieve its goals by the end of the next decade, starting with a manned moon landing in 2024, have been met with skepticism both by members of the public and by the United States Congress. The discussion has primarily focused on the specific targets Artemis is trying to hit, and whether they’re actually achievable on the time scale they claim. However, the overall benefits of what might come out of the program, and the associated risks of investing in it, also bear important consideration. Put another way, will the journey back to the Moon, besides simply reaching it again, have benefits that could help justify the cost of the trip? Or, is the venture too risky to be worth getting off the ground at all?
The Legacy of Apollo: What did we gain from our last trip to the moon?
To better understand the potential risks and benefits of the Artemis program, the best case study to examine is that of the Apollo program, Artemis’ closest relative, which led to our first journey to the Moon 5 decades ago. There are many different aspects to consider when gauging the overall value of Apollo, but here we will touch on three: its economic impacts, its societal impacts, and its costs.
The popularly told version of space exploration history holds that the government’s enormous investment into the Apollo space programs during the 1960’s provided a large boost to the aerospace industry. This boost supposedly spilled over into the U.S economy at-large, propelling the country into a period of general prosperity. Studies on this subject are currently somewhat scarce, as the data hadn’t matured enough to properly analyze until just recently. However, one study into how wages and employment changed in U.S cities that were hubs for “space race” activity found that while aerospace industries in these cities employed more people and paid them better in the wake of Apollo, non-aerospace companies seemed to employ fewer people with no change in wages over the same period. Thus, the places where Apollo should have had the greatest direct positive impact don’t obviously support this narrative.
In contrast to its economic impacts, the societal impacts of the Apollo program on American society have been quite intensely studied, even if they are much harder to accurately assess. One particular area of focus has been the many technologies that came to prominence as a result of investments made through the Apollo program. While the list is long, two examples that had a particularly recognizable influence on modern America are the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) digital imaging sensor and the integrated circuit chip (Figure 1).
In the case of the CMOS sensor, to create more lightweight cameras that could be easily carried into space, NASA scientists invented a new kind of digital image sensor, the part of the camera that detects and converts light from the camera lens into electronic signals that can be interpreted by a computer. Their device integrated the “detecting” and “converting” components into a single package, which allowed it to be much smaller and use significantly less power than its contemporary counterparts. CMOS sensors were quickly picked up by camera companies looking to produce smaller and cheaper devices for consumers, leading to the first easily portable digital cameras. If you opened up your phone’s camera, you would find a version of this same sensor still being used today.
Similarly, in their search for a way to make a computer small enough to fit on the space shuttle and powerful enough to guide it without needing to communicate with other computers on Earth, NASA scientists turned to an untested, cutting-edge technology: the integrated circuit chip. Previously, computers were built with large, bulky arrays of transistors, the individual “units” of computing power; this new technology shrunk the entire system to the size of a single chip by making transistor arrays out of tiny, intricate patterns of silicon instead of having them as separate boxes. NASA worked extensively with the companies that produced these chips to increase the scale of their production, as well as enact rigorous production quality standards so that they could be used reliably. As a result of NASA’s involvement, the chips dropped in price and increased greatly in quality, encouraging their subsequent adoption by Intel and other computing companies and fueling an acceleration in computing chip power that persisted through the rest of the century.
These devices’ impact, once again, is difficult to measure, but few would argue that they’ve been anything but positive for American society.
Lastly, while both of these devices, and the many others that emerged thanks to the Apollo program, were important for advancing our technological prowess, it is also important to remember that they came at a steep cost (Figure 2). Adjusting for inflation, the Apollo program cost the equivalent of nearly $300 billion in today’s dollars, or roughly $23 billion per year over its thirteen-year lifespan. By comparison, approximately $10 billion of NASA’s operating budget for the 2019 fiscal year was spent on projects related to human spaceflight, or less than half of what was being spent at the height of Apollo. The Artemis program itself has been most recently projected to cost an additional $35 billion over the next four years, which, while sizable, is significantly less than its predecessor.
The Dark Side of The Moon: Do We Need Another Apollo?
Ultimately, the question still remains: was the Apollo program worth it, and should we make similarly significant efforts to fund the Artemis program?
On the one hand, it is hard to say where our society would be today without the Apollo program’s massive investment in the research and development of new technologies. Much of this tech would likely have been uncovered eventually by other groups, or was already being developed, but some came about only because we were trying to solve the specific problem of how to transport ourselves through space. One could argue that the scientific and technological benefits from the Artemis program are likely to be just as valuable and come at a reduced price tag to boot. However, the reality is that the true potential value of these benefits is uncertain, just as Apollo’s future value was during the 1960’s.
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that lawmakers now, as in the past, have chosen to focus on what the Artemis program plans to achieve in the next four or five years, rather than its difficult to predict, long-term impacts. During the Kennedy administration of the 1960’s, superiority to the Soviet Union in the frontier of space was deemed a critical national goal, which helped justify the president’s request for the Apollo program’s massive budget in the eyes of Congress and the public. A report from the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development in 2014 found that NASA spends three times more than every other government-run space program in the world combined. The lack of a clear and present perceived need for further investment in space, especially when we far outstrip other countries, has thus become a major sticking point in the current administration’s quest to raise money for Artemis. The projected growth of space mining as an industry, which the U.S would be in a much better position to profit from if the program succeeds in re-establishing our foothold on the lunar surface, is one political argument in Artemis’ favor, but others have been more elusive.
Ultimately, it will be critical in the future to not only answer the question of what returns we can expect from investing in the Artemis program, but also determine how it can help the United States in the here-and-now.
President John F. Kennedy himself said that “there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to…bear the burdens to make it successful.” The argument about whether to shoot for the stars or not rests not only on how valuable we think the fruits of NASA’s labors will be, but also on how important it is to the 21st century United States to continue pushing the frontiers of exploration. The $35 billion NASA says it needs to lift off won’t come out of thin air. However, we all need to consider the following notion: in 50 years, as we look on the centennial anniversary of Apollo, will we regret not supporting Artemis more?
Hannah Zucker is a Ph.D. student in the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard University.
Christopher Rota is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Program at Harvard Medical School. In the lab, he studies pediatric brain cancer, working at the intersection of cancer biology and developmental neurobiology to uncover the basic processes that underlie tumor growth. Besides writing for the SITN blog, he also runs the Science by the Pint event series, which strives to create greater levels of interaction between scientists and the general public.
For more information:
- For details about the Artemis Program, check out NASA’s website for the latest updates about the program.
- For commentary and number crunching on NASA’s Activities, check out The Planetary Society’s website here, which contains many educational articles and publicly available data repositories (including the ones tracking NASA’s budget over the years used for this article)
- There are many public and private entities studying the issues surrounding our pursuit of space exploration. One such entity is The Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit, government-funded institution that acts as a primary advisor to the U.S government on space policy issues. They also maintain an archive of government space policy-related documents you can look through here.