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Can the Cost of Space Exploration Be Justified?

Updated on October 27, 2016
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Fifty-three billion dollars is a lot of money. That’s what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. spends on space exploration each year.

China spends about $15 billion annually.

The European Space Agency has a staff of more than 2,000 people and an annual budget of $7.3 billion. Russia spends about $7.4 billion on its space program every year.

These are the big players, although, as of 2015, 70 different government space agencies existed. Even Nigeria has a space program costing $123 million a year.

(All figures are in Canadian dollars).

Mark Thompson is a member of the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 2011, he expressed reservations at Discovery News about the cost of space programs: “I found myself wondering if it’s right that we are spending all this money on space exploration when people on our own planet are suffering so horribly, either at the hands of Mother Nature or poor governments.”

The space station Freedom, shown in a depiction by Alan Chinchar in 1991, was a proposed permanently crewed international research vehicle. It was never launched although Skylab and, later, the International Space Station were.
The space station Freedom, shown in a depiction by Alan Chinchar in 1991, was a proposed permanently crewed international research vehicle. It was never launched although Skylab and, later, the International Space Station were. | Source

Exploration or Development

Robin Hanbury-Tenison is described as an “explorer and author.” In Engineering & Technology Magazine he argues that the benefits coming out of the space industry have been minimal and probably would have developed anyway. He says the money spent on space exploration could be put to better use solving problems on Earth; “We’re experiencing climate change, famine, drought, warfare, and we’re investing money needed to solve these problems in space.”

In the year 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations and agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They pledged to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”

The goals were to be achieved by 2015, and there were numerous successes.

People living in extreme poverty fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2015. In 1990, 23.3% of the world’s population was undernourished; by 2016 this had dropped to 12.9%.

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The estimated cost of reaching the MDGs varies widely. In December 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development put the annual cost at about $158 billion. That’s just 46 percent of what’s spent globally on space exploration.

Despite the successes, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes that “I am keenly aware that inequalities persist and that progress has been uneven.”

Would more money, perhaps diverted from the space industry, solve the remaining problems?

The John Templeton Foundation posed that question with reference to Africa to eight scholars with expertise in development issues. Five answered “No,” two said “Yes,” and one wasn’t sure.

Cambridge Union Debates Space Exploration

Money not Wasted

The annual cost of the space economy, $340 billion, is not just tossed into a black hole. The space industry provides thousands of well-paid jobs. People making good money pay taxes that go to support social programs.

Space programs buy large quantities of supplies from outside companies and that means more jobs and taxes.

The European Space Agency says its budget “is boosted by a multiplier effect: every €1 invested in space returns an average €6 to the wider economy.”

Omran Sharaf is the project manager of the Mars Mission being run by the United Arab Emirates. He says another side benefit of the space program “… is to prepare UAE scientists and engineers in advanced areas, and to build the science and technology sector, which will contribute directly and indirectly in strengthening the knowledge economy that we have in the UAE.” (The National, December 2015).

The Orion project is intended to carry a crew of four in exploring asteroids and Mars. The first manned mission is not expected before 2023.
The Orion project is intended to carry a crew of four in exploring asteroids and Mars. The first manned mission is not expected before 2023. | Source

We’ve seen this happen before. The Apollo missions to the Moon (1969-72) inspired an entire generation of students to take up careers in math and science.

Space Daily supports continued exploration of the Universe. It notes that the argument that space spending is an unaffordable luxury can be extended: “Are space rockets expensive toys for the big boys? In any case, they cost less than the $27 billion a year spent in the U.S. on the human popular toy industry.”

Or, how about $775 billion Americans spend on gambling annually? Or, $76 billion on alcohol and $41 billion on tobacco. The spin-off from treating tobacco- and alcohol- related disease runs up an annual bill of $330 billion. That’s almost equal to the entire world’s space economy.

The Moral Argument

Dr. Roy Weatherford is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Florida. He argues that we have a moral duty to explore space. His reasoning goes this way:

  • All human life is valuable;
  • So, the more humans there are the better;
  • But, there is a limit to the number of human lives that can be supported on Earth;
  • Therefore, we have an obligation to find other places in the Universe where humans can live.

Dr. Weatherford’s views are not shared by everybody. Others argue that all life is valuable and that includes trees, mice, sharks, dandelions, and even the planet itself. This outlook sees Earth as a single organism and it is the moral duty of humans to preserve it. That means not overpopulating our only home and thereby destroying it.

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We Are Driven

In a sense, humans can’t stop themselves from exploring. We have a great thirst to know the unknown.

What’s on the other side of that mountain or lake? Someone was curious about what would happen if one rock struck another rock; the result was a flint arrow head.

People left the African plains 55,000 years ago to explore new places to live. At almost the same time, people from Asia set out in rafts exploring the islands of the Pacific, reaching Australia and New Guinea.

Three thousand years ago seafarers crossed the open Pacific Ocean in canoes; an extremely dangerous undertaking driven, in part, by the desire to explore.

And, every one of our distant ancestors must have looked up at the night sky and wondered what those points of light might be. Now, we are in a position to find out. Can we resist that challenge?

Bonus Factoids

Teflon did not come out of the space program, although it is popularly believed to have done so; it was invented by a DuPont scientist in 1938. Dr. Roy Plunkett was trying to find new forms of refrigerant when he created polytetrafluoroethylene (Telfon) resin by accident.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development space programs employed 900,000 people worldwide in 2013.

Two billion people on Earth do not have access to electricity and, therefore, refrigeration. One spin-off from space research is a solar-powered refrigerator designed to support life on the Moon. This technology can work equally as well on Earth and prevent the spoiling of food, as well as preserving vaccines and medicines.

Mars Rover has a sticker price of $2.5 billion; delivery to Mars is extra.
Mars Rover has a sticker price of $2.5 billion; delivery to Mars is extra. | Source

Sources

“Anniversary Shows Us that NASA and Space Exploration are Worth Their Costs.” Wallace Fowler, University of Texas News, July 21, 2014

“Space Exploration: At What Cost?” Mark Thompson, Discovery News, April 9, 2011.

“Space Exploration: Humanity’s Single Most Important Moral Imperative.” Dr. E. R. Klein, Philosophy Now, 2007.

“For and Against: Space Exploration.” Robin Hanbury-Tenison, Engineering and Technology Magazine, undated.

“Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.” United Nations.

“Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost?” Virgiliu Pop, Space Daily, January 19, 2004.

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      Howard Schneider 14 months ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      The exploration of space is an essential human endeavor to find out more about the universe. It is expensive but the scientific spinoffs have helped all of the human race in countless ways. It is human nature to keep exploring. Reining this back would be against this nature and would greatly hurt scientific expansion. Excellent Hub, Rupert.

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