"I believe that this nation should commit itself," stated a boyish President John F. Kennedy before a packed-to-the-rafters joint session of Congress in 1961, "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
It shocked the industry. It galvanized America's people and America's enemies. For one brief shining moment that was known as "Apollo," the politics of international diplomacy and statecraft found themselves aligned with our innate desire to explore, and we left the cradle and stepped onto another world—a journey that seemed to be just the start of a future for humanity in space. We were an interplanetary species.
And then, after four brief years and six lunar landings, we stopped. We walked away from the Moon and chose to focus on smaller things. We gave it all up—the technical heritage, the expertise, the lessons learned. We consigned them to dusty storerooms and forgotten boxes of microfiche, and the remaining rockets and spacecraft—mighty tools the building of which cost billions of dollars and even some lives—were consigned to museums, to be stared at longingly by retired engineers who built them, ignominiously gawked at by tourists.
Going where my heart will take me
It's difficult to pin an exact dollar figure on Apollo and sources vary on the amount, but the total all-in cost of Apollo from program start through the end of ASTP in 1975 appears to have been between $23 billion and $25 billion. This makes for an inflation-adjusted price tag of somewhere between $120 billion and $135 billion dollars. And while much of that money went toward engineering and scientific advancements that continue to pay dividends today—like, for example, the invention out of whole cloth of real-time computing and fully computer-controlled digital fly-by-wire technology—so much more of the program was simply abandoned. So many billions were spent on lawn ornaments.
How could the same space-crazy nation that venerated the Mercury astronauts as celebrities in the late 1950s exhibit such apathy less than two decades later? How could the nation that eagerly met President Kennedy's challenge just as eagerly throw away that challenge's legacy?
Why did we walk away?
Stay tuned: our Apollo series concludes tomorrow.