Saturday, 21 July 2012

Was the Apollo Mission a Waste of Money?

You are probably familiar with this photograph.

This very famous image of Earth was taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17. It has been seen by pretty much everybody, and has been used so much as to have become a cliché. And yet, it's still an amazingly beautiful and inspiring shot.

But was it worth all the money spent to go to the Moon? There were many people at the time who thought it was a waste, and people today still make that argument. Advocates of space exploration point out that the technologies developed as part of the Apollo program played an invaluable role in advancing our standard of living here on Earth, and there's truth to that, certainly. We have a lot of neat gadgets that we probably never would have developed had it not been for Apollo.

But I want to talk about something else. Look at that image again, and think of how often you've seen it before. It's appeared in books and magazines, T-shirts and posters, advertising campaigns... you name it. It's such a compelling image, it's used everywhere.

Now, copyright and piracy are very much on people's minds these days, and the RIAA in particular is complaining about losing staggering amounts of money to unauthorized copying. Whether their claims are accurate or not, we can agree that images like this photo have commercial value. So I'd like you to consider for a moment just how rich you'd expect to be from royalty payments if you owned the copyright to that iconic photo of the Earth.

Of course, if NASA charged royalties for the use of that photo, it probably wouldn't have been used by nearly so many people, and they almost certainly would have had the same problem that RIAA complains of when it comes to collecting from everyone who uses it. But that isn't really the point. What I want to argue is that if you were to sit down and put a dollar value on the intellectual property of that one, single photograph, taking into account how many people have used it for how many different purposes, the amount of value generated would be staggering. Now, think about these images:

NASA doesn't charge us royalties on using these images. They are part of our culture, and belong to all of us. We are richer for having them. I don't know what dollar value to put on them, but it's got to be pretty large, especially if we listen to RIAA and the film industry.

So forget about all the fancy technology we enjoy as a result of the Moon landings. I think we may even have turned a profit just on the intellectual property assets alone.

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