"We choose to go to the moon."

[This is a guest post by Kyle Meng.]
I woke up this morning to a radio story on NASA's last shuttle launch. Today's launch from Cape Canaveral marks the final flight for Atlantis, and indeed for our much storied space shuttle program. The story made me think of a figure I saw a few months back in a presentation made by the NYT reporter Andy Revkin. The figure, which I believe is from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, shows the portion of non-defense R&D spending since the 1950s. What struck me when I first saw this figure was just how much was spent on the space race in the 1960s. In 2010 dollars, we were spending some $20-$30 billion dollars a year to get ourselves onto the moon. I'm not sure how that compares to defense spending during the same period but it certainly dwarfs all other public non-defense R&D expenditures back then and even today (with the exception of healthcare).

I'm not sure I know how best to think about this. President Kennedy's "we choose to go to the moon" speech certainly prompted this massive allocation of public funds but at what cost and towards what benefit? Many argue that its hard to place a dollar sign on placing a man on the moon, or on beating the Soviet Union during the hottest years of the cold war. There's also the argument that the achievements of this program inspired a generation of scientists and engineers. Yet, despite all this, which I sincerely believe has true value and import, I can't help but wonder, given our space program today, its retired fleet of shuttles, and the very real technological challenges we face, whether that bulge of R&D funding might have yielded better returns had it been invested elsewhere over these past 50 years.

Technologists often argue that what we really need to address climate change is another Apollo project. Certainly, the magnitude of investment needed probably rivals that of the Apollo project. But is the Apollo project really the best example? Looking back in hindsight, I'm not so sure. I watched Atlantis' launch, and, as always, found it amazing to behold. But now what?

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