On July 20, the world will mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's first step onto the surface of the moon. Eight years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had declared "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before a joint session of Congress. President Kennedy made this commitment in response to the shocking fact that a month earlier the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first person, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth.
On January 14, 2004, at a speech at NASA headquarters, President George W. Bush recommitted the United States to return to the moon, announcing, "We will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods of time." He also declared that by 2020, the United States would have established a permanent station on the moon from which NASA would be launching crewed missions to other parts of the solar system, especially Mars.
The Apollo moon landings became a cultural touchstone, exemplifying American can-do-ness. The Apollo program's success became a pervasive policy trope: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we end poverty/provide universal health care/[insert your favorite social issue here]?"
In geopolitical terms, the moon missions may have cowed the Soviet Union. I can personally testify to the thrill and deep sense of pride that most Americans experienced as we watched the fuzzy television images of Armstrong's first steps on the moon. Was it worth it? The entire Apollo project cost almost $150 billion inflation-adjusted dollars to bring back 842 pounds of moon rocks. A little over three years after the first landing, the adventure was over. The Apollo 17 mission left a commemorative plaque at its Taurus-Littrow Valley landing site that reads: "Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon, December 1972." Nobody has since been back.
So the real question is: If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put a man on the moon?
Already NASA's schedule to return to the moon is badly slipping. Instead of having a permanent lunar base by 2020, NASA will be lucky to even have landed a crewed spacecraft on the moon by then. It took just eight years from Kennedy's first ambitious announcement to get to the moon. Apparently, it will take double that amount of time to do it again.
The Apollo moon landings have often been compared to the explorations of Christopher Columbus and the Lewis and Clark expedition to Oregon. For example, on the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, President George H.W. Bush declared, "From the voyages of Columbus to the Oregon Trail to the journey to the Moon itself: history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers."
But what boosters of the moon expeditions overlook is that the motive for pressing the limits of our frontiers in those cases was chiefly profit. In his report from his first voyage, Columbus predicted that his explorations would result in "vast commerce and great profit." The extension of commerce was also the chief justification that President Thomas Jefferson gave in his secret message to Congress requesting $2,500 to fund what would become the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Forty years later, as we bask in the waning prestige that the Apollo missions earned our country, we must keep in mind that humanity will some day colonize the moon and other parts of the solar system, but only when it becomes profitable to do so.
Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at Reason.com.