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Three related reasons: Sputnik angst, there was a race with the Soviet Union in every field, and areospace technology development for military purposes.

But the fact is, the Apollo program was a one-shot thing. It was wound down and the US lost its ability to fly to the moon. It also discontinued its high-payload rockets in favour of the Space Shuttle, so now the rocket market is occupied by the European Ariane and the Russian Proton.

The Soviet manned space program made more scientific and technical sense than the American one, and the ISS owes more to the Russian Soyuz and Mir than to the American Skylab, which was also discontinued and folded into the Shuttle.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:12:22 AM EST
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Yeah, I know. I am a final year student aerospace engineering, so I have heard my fair share of space histories...

One sidestory that I found particularly intriguing was a note between, I think, McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, in the early 60s. In it they discuss the budget surplusses they are expecting for the late '60s, and they fear Congress will call for tax reductions before they can use the surplusses for their Great Society plans. So in the meantime they think Apollo a good and popular method to keep the budget balanced until they have better things to do with the money. Then came Vietnam...

But more on topic, the whole 'spin-off' concept seems pretty much invented by NASA in later years to justify their budgets, and it is used for so many 'big science & engineering' projects when the wider public has doubts about the costs.    

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:38:00 AM EST
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