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How much is that in Apollos?

NASA
Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin poses for a picture taken by Neil Armstrong during 1969's
Apollo 11 mission. In current dollars, the Apollo program cost around $100 billion.

How much will $700 billion get you? Roughly speaking, the widely publicized cost of the financial bailout … er, rescue package … is equal to seven Apollo programs, or 70 state-of-the-art atom-smashers. The magnitude of the figures being thrown around is so much easier to understand when you use our currency conversion chart for mega-projects.

A goodly number of real-world cost comparisons have come out since the $700 billion figure was first put out there, a couple of weeks ago. For example, msnbc.com's First Read blog pointed out last week that $700 billion is just a bit more than the gross domestic product of Taiwan, or the total expense on the war on Iraq to date. If you take another tack, you could see it as three times the annual income of every household in Ohio.

Of course, no comparison is going to be completely accurate. On one hand, the initial price tag will almost certainly come to more than $700 billion, thanks to $110 billion in goodies that were added to the plan to sweeten the deal. On the other hand, the federal government could juggle the mortgage-related securities so adroitly that some of the money is made back. Such spin-offs could produce benefits to offset the bailout's effective cost.

Come to think of it, that's sort of how the space program works, too.

What we need is a currency scale that helps people visualize these multimillion/multibillion-dollar government programs, using gee-whiz images if possible. This would be handy for much more than the bailout: For example, when someone talks about an Apollo-scale program for energy independence, what does that actually mean?

Fortunately, folks who have been covering the space effort have been doing this ever since the days of the actual Apollo program. "One Apollo" turns out to be a relatively standard currency unit, the equivalent of $25 billion in 1970 dollars, or roughly $100 billion in today's dollars.

In fact, you could put together a whole scale of scientifically based currency units, based on the estimated cost of big projects, including the Large Hadron Collider and the international space station. In reality, these numbers are always squishy. Nevertheless, even order-of-magnitude estimates can be helpful.

Let's start with the smallest unit for big projects. Back in 2004, reporters covering SpaceShipOne's quest for the $10 million X Prize reflected on how much money billionaire Paul Allen was contributing to the project. It turns out that the reported figure - $25 million - crops up in another context. That's how much Allen contributed to the initial construction phase of the Allen Telescope Array, which is hunting for signals from alien civilizations.

In honor of those contributions, we can set the value of the allen at $25 million in 2004 dollars. Since then, the value has almost certainly gone up, to the extent that you could probably use an allen to buy a $30 million trip to the international space station. If you happen to have several allens sitting around, you could start your own space program (as Elon Musk did when he invested 4 allens to found SpaceX). And the scale just goes up from there, as detailed in this currency chart:

Currency unit...

Equals ...

In dollars ...

1 allen

Paul Allen's expense on the
SpaceShipOne project, or on
the Allen Telescope Array.
Also, the cost of a ticket
to the international space
station on a Russian craft, or
the Google Lunar X Prize purse.

$25 million
(ranging up
to $30 million)

1 rover

20 allens. Equal to the
per-rover cost for NASA's
Mars Exploration Rover mission.

$500 million
(ranging down
to $400 million)

1 shuttle

2 rovers. Roughly equal
to the cost of launching
a shuttle mission
in the
post-Columbia era.

 

$1 billion
(NASA has
cited figures ranging
from $450 million
to $2 billion)

1 LHC

10 shuttles. Equal to
the construction cost
of the Large Hadron Collider.

$10 billion
(some estimates
only count $6
billion in expenses)

1 Apollo

10 LHCs. Equal to
the cost of the Apollo
space program in current
dollars. Also roughly equal
to space station cost, or the
cost of returning to the moon.

 

$100 billion
(and rising)

1 budget

30 Apollos. Equal to
the White House's
federal budget proposal.
$3 trillion
(actually, $3.1
trillion
for FY 2009)

Does all this make you feel better about the $700 billion, or worse? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.