By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
July 19, 2009

Forty years ago today, I was anxiously awaiting the next day’s landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module. I lived in Huntsville, Alabama at the time, where the huge Saturn V rockets were built. These were the massive early stage thrusters that lifted the 142 thousand ton, 363 feet tall missile off the launch pad.

Like all Americans, we in Huntsville watched the grainy images of Neil Armstrong with pride, except perhaps with our chests stuck out just a bit further than most.

Isn’t it amazing what you can do with $150 billion?

That’s the cost of the entire Apollo program, when measured in 2009 dollars.

Interestingly, that’s also about twice the amount of 2009 stimulus funds that have been spent so far.

I sometimes it make me wonder if NASA is little more than the equivalent of a government airline.

Measured since Kitty Hawk, the airline industry has an accumulated net loss. They haven’t earned a nickel.

NASA hasn’t either, but it has never filed for bankruptcy. Its parent company can print money.

When measured by miles flown, NASA has a better safety record than the U.S. airline industry. Measured by numbers of passengers, the nod goes to Delta, et.al.

All NASA ever seems to do these days is send up a shuttle, fix whatever they broke during takeoff, and then bring the thing back.

American Airlines actually takes people places.

We’ve all heard of the technological benefits of the Apollo program. There was more to going to the moon than simply bragging rights to beating Nikita Kruschev and Leonid Brezhnev to the top of that particular celestial hill.

Other than Tang, I couldn’t immediately recall the commercial benefits of the Apollo program, so I went to the NASA website and found a document titled “Benefits from Apollo: Giant Leaps in Technology.”

The first product mentioned in the report was a special pen that allowed ink to flow freely in low gravity.

OK. I’m sure that came in handy for all 11 guys who followed Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Apparently the boots used for walking on the moon’s surface inspired an improvement in certain athletic shoes some 22 years later.

I wonder if I could dunk a basketball again wearing those moon boots? Probably...in zero gravity.

The second and third technology spin-offs listed in the NASA document are related to the construction of football stadiums in Houston and Honolulu. Hardly life changing stuff.

The next two featured products are results of technologies developed following the launch pad fire of Apollo 1: a fire retardant fabric and a breathing apparatus. Great technology spin-offs, in my opinion.

There are other real and useful spin-off technologies profiled later in the report, but one has to wonder if they might have found there way into being without that $150 billion in expenditures.

Maybe. Maybe not.

But for $150 billion, should we have gotten more tangible return than just Space Pens, tennis shoes and a cool roof for the Houston Texans?

For $150 billion we could have bought two bankrupt auto manufacturers and an insolvent life insurer.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

Add me to your commentary distribution list.

MCM website