When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, the historic achievement won one small bet for a man from England and was one giant loss for British bookmaker William Hill.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech, David Threlfall of Lancashire, England, asked William Hill in 1964 for odds on a man landing on the moon by the end of the decade.
“I thought if a bookmaker was prepared to offer reasonable odds, it would be a common sense bet,” Threlfall said July 20, 1969, during a live broadcast of the moon landing at the ITV studio in London.
Offered 1,000-1 odds, Threlfall, who was 20 at the time, wagered 10 pounds (the equivalent of $170 in today’s money) “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.”
When news of Threlfall’s wager spread, countless bettors — or punters, as they’re known in the United Kingdom — raced to William Hill to plunk down their money on the space race.
By the end of 1964, the odds had dropped to 100-1 on the Soviet Union becoming the first country to land a man on the moon and to 150-1 on the U.S. doing so. By 1966, as more space missions succeeded, odds on reaching the moon dipped to single digits.
After Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Armstrong uttered the famous phrase “The Eagle has landed,” a William Hill representative handed Threlfall a check on live TV for 10,010 pounds — debunking conspiracy theories that the moon landing didn’t happen.
Threlfall won the equivalent of $175,000 in today’s money. “It ended up costing the company about 50,000 (pounds) as people backed it throughout the 60s,” William Hill UK spokesman Joe Crilly told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week.
That’s the equivalent of $875,000 in today’s cash.
“We paid out over (50,000 pounds),” another William Hill spokesman said previously, “and were perhaps the only people not entirely delighted to see that particular feat of human exploration and ingenuity achieved.”
Threlfall, a personnel officer in Lancashire when he collected his winnings, was actually more of a science-fiction fan than a gambler. The moon bet was reportedly the first wager of his life.
He celebrated his win with a trip to the Bahamas and bought a Jaguar sports car with his winnings. But Threlfall didn’t get to enjoy his windfall for long. He was killed in a car accident in November 1970.
William Hill gave Threlfall generous odds. Only months before his bet, a NASA-commissioned risk assessment had forecast the chance of a moon landing by 1970 at 1 in 20.
The odds were in Apollo 11’s favor the day of the launch, but the crew still had its doubts.
“I thought we had a 90 percent chance of getting back safely to Earth,” Armstrong told reporters on the 30th anniversary of the flight. “But only a 50-50 chance of making a landing on that first attempt.”
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins agreed.
“I think we will escape with our skins, or at least I will escape with mine, but I wouldn’t give better than even odds on a successful landing and return,” he wrote in a NASA history. “There are just too many things that can go wrong.”
After William Hill gave Threlfall his check, it offered 100-1 odds on man reaching Mars before July 1976.
William Hill UK currently offers 50-1 odds that man walks on Mars before the end of 2030 and 1,000-1 odds that intelligent alien life is confirmed to exist before the end of 2020.