Source: Image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Space exploration is a hugely expensive affair. Should we spend money on space exploration when we have so many problems on planet Earth? We debate the pros and cons of space exploration and the reasons for investing in space agencies and programs.
Should we spend money on space exploration?
The launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket into has brought back media attention to space exploration. Elton Musk's private aerospace company is in the process of becoming a major player and a partner for many space programs. However, most of the efforts to discover whats out still depend mostly on public funding.
Space exploration is costly, and many argue that in times of belt-tightening, we should focus on solving problems here on Earth, especially since the knowledge gained from space exploration has few immediate benefits. On the other hand, pronponents of space exploration argue that the knowledge to be gained is invaluable, and that it is in the very nature of humankind to explore. In addition, proponents of these programs argue that they have had significant benefits and resulted in the discovery or popularisation of many useful new technologies. Furthermore, space exploration could be the only way to escape human extinction in case living conditions become unsustainable on Earth.
Today there are six big government space agencies with the capacity to create, launch and recover satellites: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos or RFSA),the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) which integrates several European space agencies. Among them only NASA, ROSCOSMOS and CNSA have full capacity for human spaceflights and lunar soft-landing. In addtition to these there are many other government space agencies with variable capabilities, most of them have only the capacity to operate satellites, a few of them also have launch capabilities and can operate extraterrestrial probes. Some of these space agencies are competing to be the first to send humans to Mars and investigating if there is intelligent life on other planets.
These space programs and agencies are very costly. It is estimated that the total annual budget of space agencies is $41.8 billion. Among them the highest budgets correspond to:
- NASA (USA, $19.3 billion)
- Roscosmos (Russia, $5.6 billion)
- ESA (Europe, $5.5 billion)
- CNES (France, $2.5 billion)
- JAXA (Japan, $2.5 billion)
- DLR (Germany, $2 billion)
- ASI (Italy, $1.8 billion)
- CNSA (China, $1.8 billion)
- ISRO (India, $1.2 billion)
Are all these costs justfified? Are there better ways to spend public funding? Should we mainly rely on private investors such as Elton Musk to promote space expliration? Will capitalistic incentives lead the way towards space exploration? In order to help make up your mind we outline next the most important benefits and problems of space exploration.
Space exploration pros and cons
- Knowledge generation. Thanks to space exploration programs we are discovering many things that help us understand the universe. For instance, learning about planets, comets, stars, etc. can help us find solutions for some of the problems our civilization will face, such as overopulation and the need to colonize other planets.
- Exploration and discovery are beneficial. Humans have always engaged in exploration to satisfy their sense of curiosity and look for opportunities. During the Age of Discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries, countries such as Spain and Portugal heavily invested in expeditions, but thanks to them they became super-powers and gained many riches. Later, during the second age of explorations in the 18th and 19th century, the discoveries of pioneers such as Captain Cook or Livingstone heavily contributed to scientific discovery.
- Artificial satellites are crucial tools in modern society. For instance they are used for defence purposes and to fight against terrorism. Satellites help us also monitor the effects of global warming and detect wildfires. Space agencies are necessary to operate satellites.
- Scientific advancement and by-products. Space exploration programs help introduce and test new technologies. Much of the research carried out to find solutions for space travel have applications elsewhere. For instance NASA research has contributed to develop velcro, fire-resistant materials, medical devices to relieve muscle and joint pain, new precise thermometers, artificial limbs, new air conditioning systems, land mine removal systems, improved radial tires, etc.
- Space race may save humanity. Life on Earth may be threatened by climate change, pollution, depletion of resources, infectious diseases or nuclear war. Further, space exploration is necessary to find another planet on which humans could pursue their lives. Space programs help also find solutions to adapt human lives to the space or other planets.
- Space industry jobs. The space industry employs directly about 120,000 people in the OECD countries and 250,000 in Russia.
- Few direct benefits to space exploration. True, space technology has helped us launch satellites and introduce many useful products, but do we need to keep pushing forward? The direct intellectual gains from learning about far away planets or satellites such as the moon can hardly compensate the costs. Historical exploration on Earth allowed collect and trade resources. Bringing resources to Earth is not possible with the current technology.
- Space travel is hazardous. Many lives have been lost in space expeditions. Space missions are very dangerous and can often cost lives and stress to the families of the astronauts or cosmonauts. Should highly qualified professionals and scientists risk their lives traveling outside Earth?
- Failure is common. Many of the space exploration fail. Probes and satellites crash, exploration robots are lost, rockets blow up in the air, etc. It is frustrating to see how so much money and time are wasted in unsuccessful missions.
- Danger of establishing contact with alien life. One of the main goals of space exploration is to find out if there is life outside Earth. However, establishing contact with other civilizations can be extremely dangerous and could jeopardize human life. If we flag our existence to technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, we may be somehow exposing ourselves to their attacks and invasion. The wanna-be colonizers could be colonized. Primitive life-forms such as virus and bacteria could also provoke epidemic diseases.
- New source of international tensions. The space race is not over. There is a growing international competition to be the first in fulfilling some challenges in space exploration. Sovereignty over other planets and satellites, and over their resources, will become a controversial issue. With the advancement of technology domination of the outer space may tip the balance of power on a bipolar or multipolar Earth.
- Priorities and opportunity costs. Even if there are benefits to space exploration, spending so much money and effort in reaching other planets is highly questionable. That money and brain power could be used to solve other more important problems for us. For instance governments could invest much more to prevent global warming, reduce crime rates and find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's Disease.
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Space exploration pros and cons: Are space programs a waste of money?
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