Saturday science subject: The Apollo bubble

— 9:31 AM on June 7, 2008

What do the Apollo space missions and the 1990s dot-com bubble have in common? Much more than you might think, two scientists from ETH Z├╝rich in Switzerland argue. As Nature's Philip Ball reports in his column, Monika Gisler and Didier Sornette think the fervor that led to the 1969 Moon landing was a bubble of its own:

During a techno-bubble of the sort exemplified by Apollo, Gisler and Sornette say, there are "unreasonable investments and efforts" in a technology, "derived through excessive public and/or political expectations of positive outcomes associated with a general reduction of risk aversion".

This means, they argue, that the effort and resources that made the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing possible cannot be explained by any rational assessment of the economic or scientific value of the enterprise, then or now. The Apollo project swallowed up US$25 billion in 1960s money (vastly more in today's terms), and claimed three lives. And yet it vanished abruptly from public consciousness in the early 1970s, bursting as suddenly and as irrevocably as any economic bubble.

Still, Sornette and Gisler think bubbles "may generate collective social gain," regardless of how damaging they can be in the short term when they burst. But Ball isn't necessary convinced. He quotes a 2007 speech in which NASA head Mike Griffin admitted, "These alleged benefits for the economy, science and national security are simply the 'acceptable reasons' for exploring space, not the 'real reasons'." Griffin went so far as to compare space exploration with cathedrals of the middle ages: "They too were often foisted on an unwilling population who were heavily taxed to pay for them and who derived little benefit from them."

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