On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the United States’ goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely home before the decade’s end. Three years later, a British sci-fi fan decided to bank on this lofty goal with a daring wager that would pay off in a big way.
David Threlfall, a 20-year-old British sci-fi fan, went to one of his country’s top bookmakers, William Hall, and asked for the odds on the success of Kennedy’s goal. After careful consideration, the bookmaker set the odds at 1,000 to 1 “for any man, woman or child, from any nation on Earth, being on the Moon, or any other planet, star or heavenly body of comparable distance from Earth, before January 1971.”
On April 10, 1964, at 10:30 a.m., Threlfall placed a £10 bet (approximately $261 in 2019), as the first wager of his life. This represented the first official wager in the Space Race. It was one small step for gamblers, but one giant leap for Threlfall; that £10 bet represented slightly less than one week’s pay for him.
To most people, Threlfall might have seemed certifiable to throw money down on such a preposterous possibility. Not everyone agreed. The bookie who accepted the bet said, “I reckoned the true odds were more like three to one against, but to have offered this would have been absurd. We wouldn’t have gotten any more bets.”
When word got out about Threlfall’s wager, it unleashed a flood of copycats, hoping to cash in on one of mankind’s greatest technological endeavors. Before 1964 came to a close, the success of the Soviet Union’s space program caused the odds to drop to 100 to 1. Each subsequent successful space mission by either of the superpowers brought the odds down even further. By the time of Gemini 9’s flight in June of 1966, the odds registered at 7 to 4.
What lunar bettors didn’t know was that NASA also gave the moon landing long odds. Not long before Threlfall put his money down, a NASA-commissioned risk assessment had forecast the chance of successfully landing a man on the moon at 1 chance in 20.
As the decade of the ’60s raced to a conclusion, reporters kept checking in with Threlfall. “Few are rooting harder than David Threlfall,” newspapers read as Apollo 8 circled the moon on Christmas of 1968. At William Hall Bookmakers, they were also watching NASA’s successes carefully. “We took him on as a joke,” said a spokesman for the company. “Now it looks as if we shall lose.”
When Neil Armstrong’s foot touched lunar soil on July 20, 1969, Threlfall’s 5-year-old bet of £10 earned him a payoff of £10,010 (£163,397.88 in 2019 values, or $212,980). He was at a television studio in London to receive his check as Armstrong took that first small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. He used his earnings to purchase an E-Type Jaguar.
Sadly, Threlfall, who was 26 years old when he received his payout, died shortly thereafter, after crashing his new sports car.
Although British bookies no longer accept bets for moon landings, they are still placing odds on other space missions. Currently, they are accepting wagers at 11 to 4 odds of a manned mission to Mars before 2025.
Read about more weird wagers.
Read more fun facts about NASA.