Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost?

Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? This Will Change Your Mind

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Despite the extraordinary scientific and technological progress of humanity since the world became industrialized over three centuries ago, many of the planet’s communities are still faced with huge problems.

Large-scale hunger still exists across the world. Out of a current population of approximately 7.6 bn, the United Nations (UN) believes that over 820 m people are undernourished, with approximately 9m dying each year from hunger-related causes, poverty, and deprivation.

At the same time, the Earth is experiencing huge climate change difficulties, with global temperatures set to rise to 2.7 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century unless CO2 output is checked. Meanwhile, deforestation continues, the natural world’s species are in decline and habitats are being destroyed.

So why then is humanity diverting billions of dollars into space exploration and apparently not using that funding to address key Earth-bound issues and problems that many would say are ruining its home planet? Is space exploration worth the cost?

The answer is that governments from both the developed world and emerging industrialized nations recognize that the practical, technological, scientific, and inspirational products arising from space exploration are well worth their financial cost.

is space exploration worth the cost
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Original from NASA.

In this analysis, Nick Spall looks at the costs and the benefits of wanting to “reach for the stars”. He considers whether we are spending wisely with such an out-of-this-world activity, finding that beyond the initial cost considerations there are deeply important reasons behind the need for space exploration.

How costly is spaceflight?

Space travel is currently very expensive.

Launching a satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) could cost over $50m via one of Space X’s Falcon 9 rockets, possibly the cheapest vehicles in operation. Other launchers such as Ariane5, Atlas 5, Delta 4 and the Chinese Long March, may be even more expensive.

When it comes to human spaceflight, cost worries get worse. Launching an astronaut or cosmonaut to LEO via the venerable Soyuz spacecraft, for example, might cost over $70m a flight and for Space X its four-passenger Crew Dragon vehicle may also run to $60m per seat.

Going further out into space, the costs ramp up.

is space exploration worth the cost
Astronaut on the moon. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

NASA’s Apollo program of 1961-1972 put twelve astronauts onto the lunar surface at an estimated cost of over $160 bn (at 2016 prices). The evolving US-led international “Artemis” lunar landing project that will return humanity to the Moon possibly by 2025 may well cost the same amount as Apollo, if not more.

Launch costs are gradually coming down of course. Space X considers that whilst a Falcon 9 launch to LEO currently costs about $2,720/kg, with their emerging fully reusable Starship launcher system this may be substantially reduced to only about $10/kg, at £2m per launch.

Space tourists – commonly called “private astronauts” – currently pay about $300k for a sub-orbital ride onboard the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane and Blue Origin’s “New Shepard” rocket flight seats will eventually amount to similar high prices.

However, for the future, the privately led “New Space” approach to launcher development will bring spaceflight costs down. Economies of scale and emerging new systems such as Reaction Engines’ reusable air-breathing SABRE rocket engine that could be used on the Skylon spaceplane will reduce the currently heavy price of traveling into space.

However, why go into space in the first place and what do we get for the high costs?

Crucial Earth satellites

Evolving out of the 1960’s “Space Race” between the USA and Soviet superpowers, space technology has developed to such an extent that now our worldwide economy and global society is heavily dependent on orbiting satellites.

is space exploration worth the cost
Communications satellite

Virtually every aspect of modern life relies on Earth orbit satellites. These allow for the following crucial services:

  • Worldwide instant mobile and landline communications, plus full TV broadcasts across the globe – it is hard to believe that prior to the mid 1960’s and early telecom satellites like Telstar, world TV transmission was just not viable and the idea of cheap and instant telephone calls seemed like science fiction until spaceflight and satellite coms became possible.
  • Emerging internet links via orbiting relays such as Starlink, for any location in the world from deep inside central Africa to the South Pole, is now being developed and will soon be operational
  • Accurate weather satellite forecasts from LEO, medium and geostationary orbiting weather sats, increasingly advanced and long-range and vital for climate change warnings
  • Accurate GPS navigation is now a vital part of our lives, relying on satellite signals, for domestic, emergency and transportation demands
  • Earth resources and environmental protection satellites such as ESA’s Sentinel network routinely monitor the planet’s ecosystem, the state of crops and agricultural land, with natural disaster warning and monitoring as required
  • Military and security services surveillance satellites, allowing full assessment of both aggressive nation threats and the dangers of worldwide terrorism, saving lives and maintaining world stability and peace.

The benefits of these satellite activities is clearly extensive and life without these space services would be very different to that of today. Current fears of a dangerous solar “Coronal Mass Ejection” that might knock-out satellites is a key worry that many international space agency planners are conscious of.

However, despite the practical value of space technology, some might well say, yes that’s all fine, but what about wider human and robotic deep-space exploration projects – why spend money on that when it has no immediate and obvious practical value?

Economic benefits of exploration

World space agencies such as NASA, Europe’s ESA, China’s CSA, India’s ISRO and Russia’s Roscosmos all operate a robotic interplanetary probe and human spaceflight exploration programs. These associated governments consider that clear and significant economic benefits come out of such space activities, together with the associated scientific research products.

Across the globe, the world space economy is valued at $450 bn a year. In the USA alone, 2.1 m people work in space industry related jobs and these cover both satellite and launcher construction, as well as exploration and space science research projects. This is all undertaken in an increasingly streamlined way and US space-spend is now not so large when compared to military and social benefits budgets – currently government space activity is approximately 0.5% of US government national spending.

In the UK, over 42,000 jobs are currently supported by space-related industries including Airbus in Stevenage and SSTL in Guildford and the sector is worth £14.8 bn annually.

During the 1960’s Apollo lunar program, almost 400,000 people were working on the project in the USA and worldwide. The emerging Artemis return to the Moon will eventually employ similar numbers across the globe’s aerospace and scientific establishments.

Spin-offs and the space catalyst

So, are the economic benefits real?

In the USA, President John Kennedy challenged the nation to land on the Moon by the end of the 1960’s not just to beat the then Soviet Union. His government was keenly aware of the economic stimulus for industry that complex high technology associated activities would bring to the national economy – this was almost “Keynesian” in its government stimulus nature.

Many thousands of “spin-off” technology benefits came out of the Apollo program, but perhaps none was more significant than the way it kick-started the computer miniaturisation industry. A key action in this regard occurred in 1963 when NASA ordered one million micro-processors from Fairchild Industries for its emerging flight computer requirements that would eventually allow for a successful Apollo 11 landing by 1969 – Carl Sagan and Prof. Chris Riley have referred to this revolution as a “gift of Apollo”.

Arguably, NASA accelerated computer technology by at least 10 years thanks to the Apollo program. Similar advances in technology should emerge from current human and robotic spaceflight projects like Artemis that will eventually lead to the wider human exploration of the Solar System.

did our ancestors come from outer space
The International Space Station (ISS) in orbit

Research being conducted by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) permanently in orbit 400km above the Earth may well add to similar spin-off research and technological benefits in biological, health, materials studies and Earth Observation sciences. UK astronaut Tim Peake supported the move to have the ISS given a future Nobel Prize for its ongoing research work.

Exploration and human nature

Many believe that a key driver to human behavior is a need to explore.

This apparently in-built human desire to seek out new places to explore and settle in led to the great human adventures of the 16th to 18th century, with Columbus voyaging to America, Marco Polo travelling from Europe to China and the great exploration sea voyages of Vasco de Gama, Drake and Cook occuring.

The human need to explore would go on to lead to the conquest of the North and South Poles, human settlement in all the continents, and the ascent of the highest mountains including Everest and the deepest oceans by the mid-20th century.

President John Kennedy’s Moon challenge speech to Congress

Space exploration can be considered to be a part of the human need to expand society outwards despite the obvious challenges – as President Kennedy quoted in his famous 1961 “We choose to go to the Moon” speech…..”we do these things, not because they are easy but because they are hard”.

In that speech, Kennedy also quoted the 1920’s Everest mountaineer George Mallory, who when asked why climb the world’s highest mountain famously replied: “Because it is there”! Mallory would no doubt have said the same thing about the human desire for the exploration of space.

Big history and evolution

Many believe that the commencement of the human exploration of space that has only been occurring for the last 60 years represents a key marker in the “Big History” of the human species.

Futurist space writers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, HG Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Arthur C Clarke had always proposed that humanity’s early exploration of the Solar System would represent a new “destiny” in the evolution of homo sapiens.

Armstrong’s carefully crafted words that he used when stepping out onto the lunar surface in 1969, “one giant leap for mankind”, recognized the symbolic change that was happening at this time. After two million years of the evolution of homo sapiens, humankind had reached the stage of being able to travel across interplanetary space – it had become a “space-faring species”. Tsiolkovsky’s deep words “the Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever”, were being fulfilled.

Actor and space enthusiast Brian Blessed put this matter well when he said: “I know that we don’t just belong here!”

Many are conscious that the relatively small cost of space exploration is worth undertaking to continue humanity’s outward urge.

Environmental consequences

Space exploration has highlighted the view of the Earth in an unexpected way.

is the cost of space exploration worth it
Earthrise image from Apollo

Astronaut William Anders’ famous “Earthrise” photo from the 1968 Apollo 8 mission resonated with the public in an unexpected way. Allied to other images such as the famous “Blue Marble” whole-Earth photo taken by Apollo 17’s astronaut Harrison Schmitt in 1972, there was a striking change to society’s perception of the lonely Earth as an “oasis” of life in the cosmos.

During the Apollo years of 1968-1972, worldwide environmental concerns became evident. Pressure groups like “Friends of the Earth” and “Greenpeace” were established, the Club of Rome’s group of industrialists and academics produced their famous “Limits to Growth” report. The phrase “Spaceship Earth” was coined and Prof. James Lovelock provided the “Gaia” theory of the Earth as a self-regulating biosystem.

Apollo provided the powerful motivational images of a vulnerable planet taken from 384,000 km away. As Anders said of the Apollo 8 mission: “We came all this way to explore the Moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth”.

A space exploration legacy must also be the hope for future “planet-wide” initiatives. The global-level inspiration that the moonlandings provided means that projects like the reduction of carbon emissions could be seen now as more viable, inspiring nations to adopt large-scale projects on a global basis – “we can land on the Moon and therefore achieve anything” is a new approach to tackle climate change, armed with sufficient financial investment. An example of this is the encouraging CFC reduction results followed a UN-led initiative in the 1990’s – this call used the Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” image of the Earth as its icon.

If the political will is there, similarly Apollo-inspired efforts might well help feed the planet, properly attack world poverty and disease, plus of course address CO2 reduction internationally. Arguably, space exploration has given humanity a new and deeper perspective of the place of the Earth in the cosmos.

Robotic space science v’s human exploration

A key issue with the exploration of the Solar System is related to the higher cost of human activities versus robotic probes.

Some have argued that with the progressively advanced probes such as Cassini, DAWN, Curiosity and JUICE, we do not need to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars and can rely on robotic systems to do the exploration.

To counter this, others would point out that human exploration capability is still well ahead of robotic systems and it is much faster and more cost effective – Apollo 17’s moon rover covered 36 km over three days, whilst robotic rovers such as the Russian Lunokhods and current Mars rovers would take years to achieve this.

Returning new and carefully selected lunar rock samples via the future Project Artemis human landing system will allow many kg’s of material to keep the world’s science labs busy for months, when compared to small robotic probes. A similar story applies to future Mars exploration – if we intend to seriously seek-out life on Mars and other natural bodies in the Solar System, then in situ human operated labs will most probably be required.

is space exploration worth it
Future Mars exploration by astronauts

There is of course a place for both human and robotic space exploration. For the further reaches of the Solar System beyond Mars, robots will be needed for many years ahead until high-speed human travel across these huge distances is properly developed.

Space heroes and “STEAM”

A key outcome of the space exploration program has been the way that the media now recognises more solidly the achievements of astronauts as “heroic” human beings

This clearly occurred for the Apollo lunar mission crews and the NASA support teams – as a result of the “Apollo 13” movie for example, astronauts like Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise have become established in popular culture.

Relatively unsung female NASA technical staff from the Apollo era, including figures like Katherine Johnson, Margaret Hamilton of MIT and Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, plus the endurance of Apollo astronaut’s wives as described in books like Andrew Smith’s “Moondust” and Fred Hansen’s “First Man”, now are fully appreciated.

Space can be very inspirational and history has shown the courage and resilience of astronauts in space projects.

Significantly, it should be recognized that Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the Moon 50 years ago in an essentially open and media-transparent way. NASA achieved the landings without secrecy, being prepared to take the consequences of failure and operating in the context of a relatively free society and culture.

Astronauts and space scientists are good “STEAM” ambassadors, covering Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics topics.

This inspirational benefit of space exploration leading to education stimulus is of great importance in schools and colleges. Post-Apollo in the USA, a significant increase in science student applications occurred through the 1970s, becoming known as the “Apollo Effect”.

In the UK, Time Peake’s “Principia Mission” to the ISS in 2015/6 sought to achieve a similar result.

Planetary defence and “Lifeboats”

The Solar System is a hostile place. Asteroids and comets cross the Earth’s orbit and, whilst most are tracked and some NASA diversion defense plans exist, there is always the threat that an object large enough to wipe out humanity may hit the Earth in the future. Normally considered to require a 10km plus size similar to the “Extinction Level Event” (ELE) dinosaur-destroying impact at Yucatan 65 million years ago, some scientists say that this is not a case of “might” occur but “when”.

Arthur C Clarke made the comment that “the dinosaurs had no space program”, again providing a good reason for ongoing space exploration and asteroid/comet research occurring for the future.

is space exploration worth it
The nightmare scenario – an Earth “Extinction Level Event”

Other disaster threats for humanity such as global nuclear war or an unsurvivable pandemic all point to the need for a “lifeboat” colony to exist off-world to ensure the continuation of the human species.

This issue is a key driver for billionaire and Space X entrepreneur Elon Musk. The Moon, Mars, and the outer planet Moons might provide a future home elsewhere for some of the world’s population and the “lifeboat” approach justification for space exploration could well be of key importance until interstellar travel properly occurs and future “Earth’s” can be found across the Galaxy.

Move industry off-world?

A motivational space exploration desire for Blue Origin’s entrepreneur Jeff Bezos is the perceived need to rid the planet of industry and polluting activities such as energy generation, mining, and ultimately heavy manufacturing.

Bezos argues that the planet could be turned into a “National Park” via the movement of industry into orbit or beyond. C02 emissions would be significantly reduced and climate change halted with this approach. Space-based solar power could be beamed back to the Earth from orbit.

Using the Solar System’s natural resources is a further reason to move out across space. As forecast by Arthur Clarke in his book “The Promise of Space”, the Moon and the asteroids contain huge amounts of water, rare minerals, and usable material that could be used in manufacturing and fuel and air. “In situ” resources will be important for the future of space exploration and this will further cut costs.

International cooperation and the Overview Effect

A key feature of space exploration is that it generally cuts across national boundaries and promotes international cooperation.

At least seventeen countries support the ISS, with the west and Russian astronauts helping to crew the station together in orbit. The international rivalry that existed during the Cold War years has not been an apparent problem for the ISS and other international space projects. In due course, it is to be hoped that China will come together with NASA, ESA, and the other space agencies in joint missions.

The return to the Moon via Project Artemis is a case in point, acting as part of a wider “Global Exploration Strategy” across the space-faring nations.

Space exploration has also provided international astronauts with what Frank White has called the “Overview Effect” – this is a profound appreciation of the place of the Earth in a hostile Cosmos, seeing the fragility of the planet from the high advantage point and without apparent national boundaries.

is space exploration worth the cost

The need for the proper protection and nurturing of this unique “oasis” of life in the Solar System is a profound topic that space exploration can help address for the future from an internationally led basis.

The verdict

To the person in the street who has no desire to travel into space, who is concerned at paying government taxes to support the current cost of space exploration, and who is possibly worried about the apparently wasteful and unsustainable carbon footprint of space launches, particularly by wealthy “space tourists”, space exploration will probably always be difficult to fully justify.

However, the reality is that in the immediate and medium-term future, space utilization and exploration will increasingly provide huge benefits for society. With cheaper reusable launchers, the introduction of rocket engine biofuels to prevent unacceptable carbon footprints, plus wider international cooperation in space and expanding job creation outcomes, we will see space in a more popular and fundable light in the coming years.

For the longer term, the evolution of what is now an emerging “space-faring” species” will, given time, be fully established. Moving out across the Solar System and eventually into the wider Galaxy, humanity will one day look back at the late 20th and early 21st centuries and say, “that was when it all began.”