Fifty Years of Moon Landing. What Next?

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

– Bill Gates

This quote by Gates is very popular in the finance/value investing world to highlight the importance of long term investing. Most people focus on the high rate of return and want to make quick money in the shortest time. But value investors focus on the magic of long term compounding rather than higher rate of return.

However today I was reminded of an exact opposite situation. In the world of Science fiction (sci-fi) or ground-breaking technology, innovations we tend to overestimate what can be achieved in the long term. And the occasion was 50th anniversary of Moon Landing.

On 20th July 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first two humans to walk on the Moon. Today marks the 50th anniversary of that event which is one of the greatest achievements of humans.

However, if you go through all the reports and discussion from 1969, people (including scientific community) were very optimistic and dreamy about future. If you go 50 years back from 1969, in 1919 the world was very different.

The Wright brothers invented and flew the first airplane in 1903. In 1914, we saw the first commercial airline. Commercial Radio broadcasting started in 1920 or so. Ford Motors launched T-model in 1920 and thus established mass manufacturing of cars. The point-contact Transistor, which was invented in 1947, was still 27-28 years away. Photocopying machine was 11 years. Nobody in 1919 could have envisaged computers, laptops, internet or mobile. Similarly nobody would have thought in their wildest dreams that man would land on moon in just 50 years.

Moon landing was a direct outcome of the Cold War between the USSR (Russia) and the US, post World War II. Both countries competed fiercely in every sphere of the world. Olympics Gold Medal tally was a matter of prestige. So was oneupmanship in technology invention and adoption. World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spasky in 1972 was special because it was seen as a direct contest between the US and the USSR. And an American defeated a USSR person in a game which was dominated by the Russians for decades.

The same rivalry existed in the Space Program. The USSR had taken lead by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. By 1960s the USSR had done several space missions. They took the first animal (a dog) in space in 1957, and the first astronaut to go in space in 1961 was also from the USSR. America was lagging behind.

My manager from previous company, an American, had shared an interesting story about the Cold War in Space missions and Moon Landing. In 1961, JF Kennedy had become president and the first USSR Astronaut had been to the Space. So the American media was asking a lot of tough questions to Kennedy about their Space program. In one of such press conference Kennedy was again grilled about the space program and he said that the US would launch Mars mission “soon”. He was further grilled on what “soon” meant. It is said that Kennedy announced in the press conference that the US would take man on moon by end of the decade (i.e. in 1960s).

It was a huge statement! By publicly announcing it he took a huge risk and created tremendous pressure on his scientists. The US Space program would become a joke if the scientists couldn’t fulfil commitment of none other than the US President – supposedly, world’s most powerful man. It is also argued by some that Kennedy did that on purpose – to create a sensation and force the scientists to go full throttle on Mars mission. And it had the intended effect. Everybody involved in the mission was charged up and fully committed. An anecdote told by our HR Prof goes like this: A janitor working at the Mars Space Mission centre was sweeping the floor at very odd hours. Someone asked him what he was doing there. He replied “I’m helping scientists in their mission of sending man on the Moon”. The moral of the story was that everybody was so aligned and committed to the larger goal that each one felt that his little effort is going to matter and contribute to the success.

And the efforts didn’t go waste! Two astronauts from the US successfully landed on the Moon exactly 50 years back, in 1969, just before the deadline committed by JF Kennedy ended (he had said 1960’s). It was also the reason why there ere many conspiracy theories whether the US really landed on the Moon or not. In fact, the conspiracy exists even today.

When the Moon was “conquered” in 1969, the confidence and optimism was really high! People thought that the next stop would be Venus or other planets, and that the man would migrate and settle on Moon. It was easily achievable in the next 50 years (considering what had been achieved between 1919 and 1969).

However, that didn’t happen. In fact, we are far away from achieving that even in next few decades – probably in next 50 or 100 years (of course, if we survive till then).

So what went wrong?

Actually nothing. Or not much. It just shows that how much we overestimate what we can achieve in the long run. After 1969, almost a dozen Astronauts went into the Space by 1974. However, after 1974 or so, the Cold War in Space mission had slowed down substantially. Because of other “mundane and Earthly issues” the world didn’t have time or money or energy to pursue the Space mission with same zeal.

In 1991, the USSR broke apart and the cold war officially ended. In 1995, after advent of Internet, the pace of innovation picked up really fast – but in different domains, not in Space mission.

So the dreams of 1969, about what can be achieved in next 50 years after moon landing, couldn’t be achieved because the focus and effort fizzled out.

The interest and effort has been rekindled in last decade or so. All the Space missions in previous century were funded by Govt – be it the US or the USSR. There was no participation from the private businesses – because there was no money to be made. That is slowly changing.

BlueOrigin, an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer was started by Jeff Bezos in the year 2000. Today Jeff Bezos is world’s richest person (with net worth in excess of $140B). SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonisation of Mars. There are few other maverick billionaires who have invested or want to invest in Space program.

Even the US, the Chinese and Russian governments have announced their plans to begin their own Mars missions (with aim of colonisation of Mars) soon.

Maybe, in next 50 years (or even before) we would see some from our community live peacefully on Mars.

The Earth is now struggling to feed all of the 7 Billion people it has. Global Warming is for real. Many paradigm shifts are now evident on the planet – such as change in weather cycles, permanent deterioration of natural resources etc.

Some scientists have claimed that the East can cope up with maximum of 8 Billion people. Beyond that we do not have resources to feed and provide for. We are close to that limit. So it is but natural that humans seriously start exploring other planets for their selfish reasons – either to make a habitat on some other planet or get natural resources, mainly fuel and energy from there.

Let’s see how next few decades shape up in this “space” (pun intended)…

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