review: a funny thing happened on the way
  to the moon
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Everyone "knows" that Apollo had an allegedly colossal budget, and what a waste of money it was. A Funny Thing estimates Apollo's budget at $135 billion adjusted for inflation, and the 7% fixed profit for the contractors at $9 billion. This sounds like an enormous sum until you realize that it was spread out over more than a decade. Sibrel tries to put it in terms of feeding the poor and hungry, but he doesn't realize just how much of that was already going on.

NASA's budget appropriations fluctuated through the 1960s. Apollo's portion of that budget also fluctuated. But if we take an outside estimate, in 1960s dollars, of Apollo's cost (i.e., $35 billion) and amortize it over the years 1961 through 1972, we come up with an average expenditure of just under $3 billion per year. During that same time, disbursements for entitlement programs for just one year amounted to $75 billion -- some 25 times the average annual budget of Apollo.

And the indirect benefits from Apollo continue to be realized today in the form of less perishable food, less expensive medical care, global communications, and hundreds of other boons. Sibrel doesn't realize that those billions were not loaded into a rocket and shot away into space. The billions spent on Apollo were spent right here at home, providing jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers who were glad to have them. The thousands of workers who got pink slips the day Apollo 17 landed didn't see the cessation of Apollo as a return to sensible spending of tax dollars.

Mr. Sibrel simply states, as if it were a self-evident fact, that the contractors were in bed with NASA and conspired unethically to get these procurements. The contract letting process is a matter of public record, but A Funny Thing doesn't discuss it. North American Aviation came within a hair's breadth of losing the command and service module contract when their performance slipped. The smaller engine contracts were reassigned when their contractors failed to meet production schedules and requirements. In short, there's all kinds of evidence that the management of Apollo contracts was on a merit basis and not on a basis of who was getting palms greased.

If the moon lander didn't actually have to function, then the contractors could hide additional profit in the form of inflated costs.

That would be plausible if Sibrel had first shown that the lunar module did not work. He tried, subsequently, on his web site. But all he can show is that he doesn't understand engineering at all. His argument amounts to little more than additional unsupported claims. And while we acknowledge Mr. Sibrel's attempt to try to support a hole in his previous argument, we lament that it wasn't there in the first place; it was a necessary premise to the conclusion he already drew. That indicates that Sibrel draws his conclusions first and then concocts arguments in favor of them.

In fact detailed plans and specifications for the spacecraft are easily obtained, and eager engineers pore over them today with fine-toothed combs. Examples of the spacecraft themselves survive for inspection. Mr. Sibrel argues that the Apollo missions never went any farther than low Earth orbit, and from that would follow that a functioning lunar module was not needed. But nowhere does the film break that circularity using actual data. As far as the real experts have determined, the lunar module not only worked, it worked exceptionally well.

Mr. Sibrel also neglects the fact that the hardware applicable only to a moon landing -- the lunar module -- was a small portion of Apollo's total budget and was shepherded by only one contractor. The lion's share of Apollo development cost was the Saturn V launcher, which involved several top-level contractors and received nearly a billion dollars a year during much of Apollo's reign. This is significant because out of all the Apollo components, the Saturn V was the only one not exclusively intended for missions to the moon. The Saturn family was intended to be the mainstay launchers for all of America's space activities in the 1970s and beyond. Sibrel argues that the moon landings had to be continued in order to keep the dollars flowing, but as long as most of those dollars went to the Saturn producers, any space project would do -- space stations, satellite launches, etc.

And while Mr. Sibrel makes a case that huge amounts of profits could have been generated, he declines to provide any proof of actual huge profits. The relevant companies downsized dramatically after Apollo closed. Where are the conspicuous signs of those billions of dollars in ill-gotten profit? Where are the ex-engineers driving Porches? Where are the beachfront houses? Where are the fine clothes? Perhaps the beneficiaries were warned not to spend their rewards lest they arouse suspicion, but what good is a payoff if you can't spend it?

As with the film's other claims, the assertions made here simply fail to materialize in the form of actual historical data. Sibrel says what "could have" been the case, what "must have" been the case, but doesn't verify for the viewer that it was the case.

Even though it had fewer parts than a Jeep, each lunar rover cost $60 million. Where did that money go?

Yes, where did it go? Bart Sibrel introduces himself as an investigative reporter. It is the job of investigative reporters to answer questions, not merely ask them and leave the innuendo hanging there. Did Sibrel go to Boeing and ask to see their records? Did he talk with anyone about the difference between producing six units of a product and producing sixty million of them?

A Funny Thing's hidden assumption is that part count is the only objective measure of how complicated something is. Something with few parts must automatically be less complicated, less expensive, less difficult to build than something with many parts.
Fig. 1 -An automated car assembly line. Car manufacturers design their products specifically to be manufactured inexpensively on such lines. (U.S. Dept. of Labor)

Chrysler spends hundreds of millions of dollars developing a new automobile model. The sticker price reflects the amortization of that development cost over tens of millions of units produced -- and produced by inexpensive (per unit) automated means whose tooling costs are also amortized (Fig. 1). It also reflects a certain design philosophy that sacrifices potential quality for affordability. For customers who don't want leather seats, there are cloth seats. For customers who can't afford air conditioning, there's a cheaper model that omits it. The lesson is that consumer marketing and specialized design for aerospace are very different things and aren't expected to obey the same economic laws.

The unit cost of each lunar rover included painstaking hand fabrication and assembly to assure the utmost reliability and quality. It also included the amortization of development costs -- greater than that of the typical auto because of the additional requirements of engineering for space -- over a much smaller production run. Though the rover contained fewer individual parts, those parts were important and advanced. The LRV could navigate itself, steer with all four wheels, relay communications; and the whole thing could be carried in lunar gravity by two men, after folding up into a bundle approximately the size of a coffee table. Your average Jeep just can't do that, and that -- not part count -- translates into a high cost.

One lunar landing suffices for the public, but the greedy contractors staged more missions in order to maximize their profit.

This would make more sense if Apollo funding continued at a high level throughout Apollo's operational period, 1969-1972. But in fact the highest funding levels were, appropriately, during Apollo's developmental period, 1961-1969. Just manufacturing the equipment was not very lucrative once it had been designed and tested -- especially on a fixed profit margin. It would have made more sense to curtail the operational phase and move on to another high-priced development phase, if profit had been the motive.

The film here becomes confused about motive. The original motive for hoaxing the landings was to fool the Soviets into thinking the U.S. had clearly superior technology. But halfway through the film, Mr. Sibrel suggests the motive is to pay greedy contractors out of the American public coffer, and that conducting several missions instead of just one was a way to maximize profits. That isn't very compatible with the first motive. The more missions you fake, the more opportunity the Soviets have to inspect -- and possibly expose -- each alleged Apollo mission. A magician never repeats a trick, and for good reason.

The Apollo 13 emergency was staged to provide additional drama for a program that had lost public attention. This was necessary in order to keep the dollars flowing.

That simply makes no sense. The accident renewed calls in Congress and in the general public -- and even within NASA -- to truncate what was perceived as a dangerous program. The result of Apollo 13 was a shorter Apollo program with fewer missions and thus less money for contractors.

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