The Cost of Space Exploration

Shuttle landing view

After writing several posts about spaceflight, my opinions, and personal memories included, I began to think about the cost of all this exploration.  Several commentators mentioned that “they were happy we are no longer wasting money.” I don’t agree with them, knowing full well that without the spin-offs from spaceflight I wouldn’t be sitting here on my laptop computer transmitting wirelessly across the world from my desk in my bedroom.

So here’s what I found on the actual costs of the Shuttle Program.

  • The average cost per launch has been about $1.2 billion dollars
  • Over the lifetime of the space program (1971-2010) the US has spent about $192billion.

*Click here for reference

Conversely, the benefits of the program have been many as well.  While I could not find any actual analysis of what impact the technology, tourism, and employment has had, I can tell you that I would caution anyone to judge this enterprise solely on cost. The amount of technology gained from the ability to travel into space might launch us into the future of an ability to make quantum leaps in technology.  We now know that we can create micro-environments in zero gravity, that we can achieve the building of life sustaining structures outside our atmosphere, that we can utilize space for defense, conduct extensive monitoring of our atmosphere and oceans, mitigate meteorite activity, and investigate the possibility of alien life and the habitability of other planets.

To say that the shuttle program has been worthless is what the Italians said about Christopher Columbus discovering the new world. In case you didn’t know, they believed the world was flat, that it had edges, that water flowed over them, and that everything worth being found had been.  They were wrong, blinded by the trends of the time to just exist and do what they were told. In essence, a belief that exploration isn’t necessary is akin to living in the dark ages. Exploration has been what has allowed humans to continue to exist.  Had we not had an interest in anything other than food, sex, and fire we would have never made it out of the caves.

Interestingly, cost has been an issue for many explorers.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition was scheduled to only cost $2,500 (roughly 35,800 in 2010) in 1803. Instead, it cost $38,727 ($555,300 in 2010).*Click here for reference  I’m sure many other expeditions were far more expensive than thought as well.

But lets put all this billions of space flight into perspective.  The shuttle program has lasted for 30+ years and cost $192 billion.  It’s over, spending is almost done.

In comparison several reports indicate that “adjusted for inflation, the cost of the Iraq War to date totals $756 billion and the stimulus act totals about $820 billion.” reference here Those programs aren’t over, spending isn’t done, numbers are still rolling and they haven’t been going on for 30 years.  The benefits are minimal, and the long lasting effects of both, probably not positive.

On that, I end my comparison. My opinions are this:

  • The shuttle program was scheduled to end, and so it has after this next shuttle comes home.
  • The ARES program was scheduled to take it’s place, had been tested, and was ready to go, it’s now been canceled and dismantled.  Not a good move.
  • Privatization of the industry is fine, but it’s not new.  The many companies involved in launching the shuttle were privately owned, and worked under the guidance of NASA, not necessarily for it.
  • This idea that a private industry will find reason and money to conduct exploration farther than tourism isn’t likely, and they are still restricted to working under NASA, not changing any rules that other contractors were under. Furthermore, any technology they might discover can be commandeered by the US Military, negating the ability to profit.
  • While we are now without outer space flight capacity, other countries are advancing theirs.  This can’t be good.
  • Finally, the lack of interest into scientific pursuits have been the downfall of societies throughout time.  When one country lags on the field the next overtakes them, it’s the history of the world, and it’s no different now than in 1400, with the exception of 24-7 media and the internet. If we don’t keep up, we will disappear, and that’s what scares me the most.

Don’t agree with me?  That’s fine, this is America, I defend your right not to.  What I want to know is why without the idiocy of name calling and combative terms.  I don’t do graphs and charts.  I find they are useless unless you can provide how the data was prepared, collected, and crunched.

Thanks for reading!

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