Space exploration costs

Space Exploration / October 28, 2018

A photograph of Typhoon Neoguri, taken from the International Space Station (ISS).Should we be spending so much money on research in outer space, when there are many worthy projects back on Earth?

Space exploration is expensive. Very expensive, in fact; our infographic shows that it costs nearly £15, 000 per kilogram to launch an object into Earth orbit. In a financial climate of austerity, should we be ‘wasting’ money on what some consider to be a luxury? Should we be focusing on more down-to-Earth problems like climate change or world hunger and poverty, rather than parking yet another rover on Mars?

Of course those problems are very worthy ones that are in dire need of addressing, but who says space exploration can’t help with them? Satellites are helping us monitor climate change, and they are also helping keep tabs on droughts and agricultural resources in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The fundamental questions about our universe that space missions and telescopes are trying to answer are some of the most profound and difficult questions it is possible to ask. That forces us to think outside the box and craft new ways of doing things. Of course, it is almost always impossible to predict which exact benefits will come from answering these questions. Is the promise of some unspecified future benefit to humanity enough to justify the vast amount of money spent on space exploration?

Perhaps it is, when economies generally get more money back from exploring space than they put in. Studies have shown that for every $1 spent by NASA on space exploration, the US economy benefits to the tune of $8. In the UK, the space industry is booming – it is one of the fastest-growing business sectors. It currently supports around 100, 000 jobs nationwide and contributes more than £8 billion to our GDP. If we didn’t invest in space, could we risk being left behind as other nations plough ahead and reap the rewards?

When the Philae lander from the Rosetta probe touched down on a comet in November 2014 it made front-page news. One of its goals was to work out how the water which sustains life on Earth got here. The response from the public was overwhelmingly positive, but some commentators balked at the €1.4 billion (£1bn) cost of the mission.

On the face of it, that sounds a lot of money. However, this mission didn’t just happen overnight – it took 20 years of work. It was also funded by the taxes of the citizens of all the countries that back the European Space Agency. Put together, that works out at €0.20 (15p) per year of the mission for each European citizen. Does that make Rosetta’s achievements seem less expensive? Or does it still seem like too much?

Lead image:

A photograph of Typhoon Neoguri approaching Japan in 2014, taken from the International Space Station (ISS).

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Space Biology’ in June 2015.

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