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Apollo programme: an act of magnificence

19 July 2019

St Thomas Aquinas can help us to defend the extravagance of the Apollo programme, suggests Andrew Davison


A father and child prepare for star gazing

A father and child prepare for star gazing

AS THE crowning achievement of the Apollo Project, two people landed on the Moon in July 1969. The project cost $25 billion (£20 billion), which translates to around $160 billion (£130 billion) in today’s terms. It was the most expensive peace-time project in human history.

Was the cost justified? Should it not have gone to tackling poverty? The Christian impulse might lie in that direction. “It seems unsophisticated to point out that the money could have been better spent,” the Bishop of London, Robert Stopford, observed at a “moon breakfast” at the Savoy on 21 July 1969 (Church Times, 25 July 1969). Yet, he added, “there must be a way of asking that there now be a pause . . . of saying that we should also spend money on poverty and famine, without detracting in any way from the stupendous achievement.”

The question might put us in mind of the anointing in Matthew 26. “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” Yet, on that occasion, Jesus took the side of extravagance: “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me.”

Was landing a person on the Moon a noble act of extravagance? Was the Moon landing a “good service” (ergon kalon — a beautiful act), for God and the human race? I think it was.


I WILL come to a specifically theological perspective on the question in a moment, but the theologian ought to be just as open to straightforward, mundane analysis, where that has something to offer. Here, some point to technological pay-offs as justification for the mission. Or there is the value of samples of Moon rock for our understanding of planetary science in general, and for understanding our own planet and its history, in particular. Or consider the pictures of the Earth that were taken on that mission, so beautiful and yet somehow also so delicate. They helped galvanize the ecological movement.

A yet more mundane approach would be to look at numbers, and sums of money. The Apollo programme stretched over about 12 years; so $160 billion (in today’s money) works out as $13 billion (£10 billion) per year. The population of the United States was almost exactly 200 million at the time, making it $65 (£52) per person each year.

I imagine most Americans were happy with that sort of expenditure on their behalf. The programme wasn’t only on their behalf, however: the Moon landings were an achievement for the entire human race. At the time, that ran to around 3.4 billion people: so $3.80 (£3) per person, per year. For landing people on the Moon, and returning them home, that’s starting to look quite reasonable.


WHAT of a theological perspective? It’s fair to say that Christian theology is divided when it comes to grandeur and munificence. There is what I think of as a “Franciscan” outlook, which prizes simplicity, and there’s what I think of as a “Dominican” outlook, which sees magnificence — all other things being equal — as a hallmark of the greatness of the human being, made in the image of God. The labels may or may not be helpful; we can discard them if not.

church timesIn the Church Times (25 July 1969), “Church leaders hail achievement of man on moon”; and the Bishop of London, Dr Robert Stopford, is snapped at an Evening Standard “Moon Breakfast” in the Savoy Hotel

If I am going to stick my neck out, and speak well of the Apollo programme, as a good use of resources, I will do well to turn to Dominican sources. Sure enough, that great Dominican St Thomas Aquinas singles out two virtues that bear upon the question: “magnanimity” and “magnificence”.

“Magnanimity” here (magnanimitate) isn’t magnanimity in the modern sense: generous-spiritedness in victory. It’s something closer to the root of the word, namely “greatness of soul” (magnitudo animi); it’s a disposition towards being able to achieve demanding projects that are worthy of great honour. It can be a religious impulse: “magnanimity makes people deem themselves worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts they hold from God,” Aquinas wrote — naming gifts such as science or fortune.

Even more relevant for the Moon landings is the virtue of magnificence. Again, the etymology is significant: this is magna facere, the making — or doing — of great things. Magnificence is a disposition towards lavish expense, with excellence in the concurrent skills of “administration”, for the sake of noble ends. But what sort of ends justify such outlay? Things especially, Aquinas writes, that one wishes only to do once (a wedding is his example), or which last (like building a house).

If we have a place in our vision of the human being for greatness of soul and — even more — for magnificence, then the Apollo Project aligns fair and square. It was a fitting celebration of science and fortune, and since it attempted to do something for the first time, it was also something that could be done only once, and an achievement that would last for ever.

Indeed, the Moon landing serves as a particularly fine example of these virtues. The Dominican tradition has seen both greatness of soul and magnificence as aspects of courage, but not as perfect examples, since courage involves willingness to risk danger to life and limb, which expenditure of money, in itself, does not. With the Apollo Project, however, exactly such a risk entered the picture. Indeed, three lives were lost in the Apollo 1 cabin fire of 1967, and the extraordinary survival of the crew of Apollo 13 is the stuff of legend.


IN CLOSING, we might consider two more points. One returns us to the realm of figures and sums of money; the other asks what suitably magnificent endeavours might look like for our own time.

My earlier calculations treated the Apollo space programme as a public outlay, as indeed it was. Discussion of figures in the billions of dollars, however, should remind us that extraordinary inequalities of income and resources exist today not simply between one public programme and another, but also — most strikingly — between one individual and another. The scandal, to my mind, is not that the world’s richest nation decided to do such a great thing, acting in common; the scandal is that our schemes of taxation would allow even individuals to do so.

As Oxfam pointed out a few years ago, the eight richest people today own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population put together. The world’s single richest person, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, came within a whisker of being able to fund the Apollo programme himself. (The whisker grew wider following his recent $38-billion divorce settlement.)

Perhaps six 20th-century billionaires could have paid for the programme in its entirety; two — John D. Rockerfeller and Andrew Carnegie — could have paid for it twice over. The 2700 current US billionaires possess a wealth between them of around $9 trillion (£7.2 trillion). That would run to the Apollo programme 56 times.

Or, if we are enumerating scandals, how about this one: according to a project at Brown University, US involvement in wars after 9/11 cost an estimated $3.6 trillion (£2.9 trillion). That’s enough to cover the Apollo Project 12 times. The Apollo Project left three dead; those wars are pushing half a million.

That makes for grim reading. Wondering about magnificent acts for our own time might restore our cheer. Eliminating smallpox, once a significant cause of death, cost about $300 million (£240 million) in the 1960s, equivalent to somewhere around $1 billion (£800 million) today.

The cost, to date, of our attempt to eliminate polio is difficult to track down: perhaps $15 billion (£12 billion) so far. That’s brought the number of new cases of polio down from 350,000 in 1988 to 22 in 2017. For that we should each recite a Te Deum in gratitude. It might cost a further $4.2 billion (£3.3 billion) to eliminate polio for all time. That’s magnificent. Malaria next? I hope so.

And what about climate change, the greatest threat of our age, and particularly deserving of magnificence in response? A recent paper in Science suggested that planting trees, or replanting them, wherever the Earth might sustain them (without affecting food production), would need a trillion seedlings. The result would to remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human beings have ever released into the atmosphere. It would cost a minimum of $300 billion (£240 billion): that’s two Apollo programmes. To put the finances into perspective, the two richest people in the 20th century could each have paid for it on their own, and it is one twelfth of the cost to the US of the post-9/11 wars. The combined wealth of the billionaires of that country alone could run to it 30 times over.

To attempt the Apollo programme was an act of magnificence. An attempt to reforest the planet would be similarly magnificent; indeed, not to attempt it would be madness.

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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