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What’s a Moon Shot Worth These Days?

Google X’s project to study human health is no Apollo 11.

The term “moon shot” has been getting tossed around a lot lately, mostly by Google X, the search company’s publicity arm.

Ahem, secret lab.

The last time was last Friday, when the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a biomedical research study being planned by Google X, which it crowned “Google’s New Moonshot” and rated as the company’s “most ambitious and difficult science project ever.”

Google added, in a fact sheet sent to journalists, that the study would engage in “a type of clinical research study that has never been done before.”

But the research, called the Baseline Study, sounded pretty ordinary to me—measure the genes and blood chemistry of 175 healthy people (and eventually thousands more) and try to establish some molecular information about what normal looks like.

It makes you wonder what qualifies as a moon shot. On Twitter, some genome researchers had the same feeling:

Google’s CEO Larry Page started talking up “moon-shot thinking” a couple of years back. He wanted to make sure Google didn’t get stuck focusing on incremental ideas and would always come up with the next Android or Gmail. So the company created Google X, a kind of skunk works where far-sighted researchers can play with the toys of their choice.

Google’s moon shots now include autonomous cars, Google Glass, high-altitude blimps that beam Internet service to the ground below, contact lenses that monitor glucose, a life extension company with plans to “solve death,” and something involving walking robots. Half these projects were announced in the last eight months.

But let’s consider the original lunar trip. In 1961, President Kennedy challenged his nation to put men on the moon inside a decade. This seemingly impossible goal was achieved eight years later, on July 20, 1969. As Google itself defines it, a moon shot must combine “a huge problem, a radical solution, and the breakthrough technology that might just make that solution possible.”

The Baseline study doesn’t fulfill this definition. It doesn’t appear particularly novel. There’s not much question it can be done. And Google also hasn’t established a clear scientific destination or problem. The study’s goal to “investigate the chemistry of a healthy body” is open-ended. How will we know when they get there?

Even a few normally tech-friendly doctors, like Scripps’s Eric Topol, were underwhelmed:

There’s also something slightly hokey-sounding about Baseline. The Google X manager running the study, Andrew Conrad, previously cofounded the California Health & Longevity Institute. That’s an upscale spa near Malibu where the well-heeled can pick from a menu that includes acupuncture treatments, healthy cooking lessons, or sitting inside a 64-slice CT scanner.

It was funded by Conrad’s previous benefactor, the 91-year-old billionaire David Murdock, who is the chairman of Dole Foods, and who has plans to live to be 125 by eating only healthy foods. In fact, the $4,000 executive physicals offered at the spa (technicians check your vitamin levels and scour your scans for cancer while you get a massage) sounds vaguely like the workups the 175 volunteers will get as part of Baseline.

And then there’s simply the matter of scale. Google has been building a team of “70 to 100” experts in biomedical imaging and analysis, according to the WSJ. That’s not small, but it’s not moon-shot-sized either. About 400,000 people worked for the Apollo program, a massive undertaking that at times ate up as much as 4 percent of the U.S. GDP.

According to historian Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum, putting men on the moon cost $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today’s dollars.

When I added up Google’s R&D spending over the last eight years (a time frame comparable to that of Apollo), it came to around $36 billion. That’s pretty sizable. It means Google’s R&D spending amounts to about one-fifth an Apollo project, on an ongoing basis.

But Google X only represents a fraction of Google’s R&D spending, and moreover, Google doesn’t just have one moon shot but a half dozen of them. Just guesstimating here, but Google’s biggest moon shot is probably spending 1 percent of the budget of the real one.

What NASA’s moon trip and Google X have in common is that they are huge publicity generators. I’m not sure that going to the moon had any practical use—astronauts brought back a few hundred pounds of rocks and some great pictures—but the psychological impact was immense. It positioned the U.S. to dominate aerospace for years to come.

Similarly, Google’s X lab has changed the way people perceive the company. I’ve stopped thinking of Google as a company that makes its money selling search ads for easy credit, online degrees, and auto insurance. Now, when I hear the name Google, I think of world-changing technical derring-do.

But Google could break the spell if they overdo it. Baseline is no moon shot.

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