I know a number of people who think that going to the moon was a colossal waste of time and money, when that effort could have been better put towards things like health care, education and whatnot. To be fair, I completely understand the sentiment because it demonstrates a practical outworking of the economic concept of 'opportunity cost'; that is, what was foregone in order to make the thing in question work. When you look at the ongoing issues that exist in the United States, of which the most obvious are health care, education, housing, and poverty, then to ascribe blame to the whole moon program as being an opportunity cost, is both sensible and rational.
The thing is though, while I understand the sentiment, I flat out reject it; and will cite the ongoing permanent opportunity cost which the United States has decided to impose upon itself and which President Dwight Eisenhower warned against in his farewell address - the creeping tide of the Military-Industrial-Complex. Set against that light, going to the moon becomes a far more sensible case, precisely because of the stupidity of the whole program.
To understand my position on this, we need to look back at the circumstances which not only created it but another more deadly opportunity cost which was foregone.
Imagine for a second that you are the Soviet Union. Humans are egocentric pattern seeking machines and so as you are watching the Allies close in on Europe and trying to work out the details of what will be the impending peace, the world is still in tension and unease.
Imagine then after securing peace in Europe, your attention then attends to the ongoing conflict in the theatre of the Pacific. The United States, wanting to put a swift end to the war, drops two extinction devices upon Hiroshima and then Nagasaki; upon what is essentially civilian populations.
If you are the Soviet Union, your intent would be to set up an Iron Curtain as quickly as possible, because the other lot not only have the ability to wipe out entire cities in ten minutes but have actually done so, twice. They then have the temerity to paint you as the bad guy.
It then makes complete sense to want to develop your own nuclear weapons program, if for no other reason than to act as a deterrent to having your own cities destroyed in ten minutes.
Then imagine that you are the United States; who after seeing what Churchill called the Iron Curtain descending across Europe, and looking at them develop nuclear weapons; which you know are going to work because both you and they derived the technology from the common source of the Nazis, and then consider what happens when they start flinging things into space.
Before you're even ready to put a man in space, they've sent up several, including people of colour and some women, which just rials up your situation at home while you're struggling with domestic issues like civil rights.
They have the potential to destroy your cities in ten minutes; so you had better get the potential to destroy their cities in ten minutes, just to even up the score.
Thus, as far as rocketry and nuclear weapons are concerned, the 1940s, 50s and the opening portion of the 1960s are a rational and logical arms race, where the principle of mutually assured destruction, although potentially dangerous and deadly, is locking in the two superpowers of the day, in a geopolitical dance of insanity and mistrust.
Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, came after one of the scariest incidents in the history of the twentieth century. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we can thank the refusal to act by a Russian submarine captain, after his nuclear missile equipped submarine was fired upon from the air. Had he retaliated with his nuclear weapons, then we would have seen that scenario of mutually assured destruction play out according to steps of the geopolitical dance.
In that light, Kennedy's charge to spend an obscene amount of money, to do an as yet technically impossible thing, should be seen as a distraction and diversionary tactic. By channeling the efforts and energy of two superpowers into a stupid project, Kennedy's plan was to take heed of the words of Eisenhower before him, and engage the exact same gears of the Military-Industrial-Complex in a task that wasn't the business of death. It was companies like McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, General Dynamics, Rohr, Goodrich, etc. who instead of making warplanes and missiles, were still making missiles but with blokes attached. Instead of flinging warplanes and missiles at each other, they flung them into space and the moon.
There was a certain kind of wonderful and inspiring collective insanity going on then, fueled in part by fear of the spacefaring and technological prowess of the Soviets; also fueled in part by the United States' own crapulence and hubris.
This whole thing was a glorious make work exercise, which was justifiable given that two world powers who were locked in a dance with nuclear weapons, both had the potential to destroy millions of people in ten minutes.
Remember, it was America who actually used nuclear weapons in war; so to accuse to the Soviets of being paranoid given that America had already used them in anger is to miss the mark.
Spending $20 billion to put a dozen clowns on the moon, in an act of flag waving, to prevent the loss of millions of lives, seems like a worthy expense to me. By the time I was born, the United States had stopped going to the moon. What was the point? The Soviet Union had by that stage, begun its inevitable slide to non-existence, and unless you include the idiocy of the Vietnam War, then the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States cost zero lives in direct nuclear conflict.
I think that that squares the ledger nicely. The fifty years since Armstrong kicked the moon, have showed a steely determination by the United States to steadfastly refuse to address the issues of health care, education, housing, poverty, etc. Of course the argument that spending so much money on the Military-Industrial-Complex still stands but as those issues seem to be more or less permanently ongoing, then it's difficult to suggest that not going to the moon would have made even an iota of difference.
I personally rather like the residual side effects of the Space Race, such as Wi-Fi, plastics, prosthetics, fly by wire, remote control systems, as well as a host of other medical technologies developed as a result of working out how to keep humans alive in the vacuum of space.
It has been said that for every dollar spent on sending twelve clowns to the moon, it multiplied four more in GDP. Meanwhile, spending lives, hardware and money in the concurrent job of fighting a war in Vietnam, has probably had no real benefits to speak of fifty years later.
What was the opportunity cost of that?