Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. Technophiles and sci-fi fans everywhere, including complexity theorists as well as presidents, celebrate this event, while others think it was a waste of money and effort. One side of the debate focuses on various useful scientific discoveries that can be attributed to the space mission (I’ve seen the iPod claimed as an application), while the other side focuses on the opportunity cost (fighting hunger and disease and such).
I am not really convinced by the attributed scientific discoveries — much more could have been obtained at a cheaper cost by saner missions such as un-manned space flight. On the other hand, I can’t see the opportunity cost as being world hunger. The truth is that the space mission was part of the cold war — a sublimation of a war, or a game of war, if you will. The intention was certainly to compete with the USSR and the basic technology is as war-like as it gets. Like a war it managed to capture the imagination, enthusiasm, and energy of a nation, and in fact of much of the world. Compared to alternative acts of war, the Apollo mission really shines: it is not a human tragedy. In general, the main attraction of other games of war as well (like sports competitions) is that they are not real wars.
The algorithmic game theory connection here is slim, but at least Google found a neat angle by taking Apollo’s computer programs and making them open source. I suppose that this now justifies the auction of Buzz Aldrin’s slide rule.