Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration

Given the cost associated with space exploration, one naturally has to ask what the benefits are and whether or not they are worth it.
Matthew S. Williams

Ever since the Sunset of the Apollo era and the Soviet Union collapsed (thus ending the Cold War), there has been an unavoidable question regarding space exploration.

It has become even more relevant in recent years in response to new proposals to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

"Given the sheer cost, is space exploration really worth it?"

Let's face it; space exploration isn't exactly cheap! It takes millions of dollars to send even a single robotic mission to space and billions of dollars to send astronauts to orbit.

If you're looking to send explorers to even the nearest celestial bodies, chances are the costs will run into the hundreds of billions.

To be fair, exploring space, the other celestial bodies of the Solar System, and the Universe at large also comes with innumerable benefits. The problem is the most obvious benefits are largely intangible. How do you put a dollar value on scientific knowledge, inspiration, or expanding our frontiers?

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA on The Commons / Flickr

What About Earth?

For those debating the worth of space exploration, things often turn toward the issue of how many problems we have here on Earth. As the argument goes, we've got enough challenges here at home - climate change, hunger, overpopulation, and underdevelopment. These should take priority over exploring and/or establishing a human presence in other worlds.


For example, in a recent op-ed piece, Amitai Etzioni - an adviser to the Carter administration - countered some of the arguments for colonizing Mars and other planets in the Solar System (as put forth by luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk). Addressing the argument that humanity needed to do so to survive long-term, Etzioni wrote:

"[W]hat the droughts, the fires, the hot summers, and the melting glaciers call for is not an escape from Earth, but a redoubling of the efforts to save it... What is needed are major technological breakthroughs that will allow for protecting earth while sustaining a healthy level of economic activity... To make such breakthroughs we need major concentrations of research and development resources, talent, and leadership, all of which are in short supply. Hence, any serious Mars endeavor will inevitably cut into the drive to save Mother Earth."

While these arguments have a certain logic, they are subject to three major assumptions/fallacies. First, they seem to be built around the idea that space exploration and addressing our many problems here on Earth are mutually exclusive rather than complementary.

One of the greatest benefits of human spaceflight and space exploration has been the ability to study Earth from orbit. This has allowed us to learn an unprecedented amount about our planet's climate and weather systems, not to mention giving us the ability to measure these systems and the impact that human agency continues to have on them.

It also gave rise to the understanding that our planet is a single, synergistic, and self-regulating complex system — the Gaia Hypothesis. Originally proposed by famed scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, this scientific theory is one of the cornerstones of the modern environmentalist movement.

Second, there is the assumption that directing funds into space exploration and space-related ventures will deprive other efforts (such as addressing climate change, alleviating poverty, feeding the hungry, etc.) of vital resources.

Once again, the same type of "either/or" reasoning is at play, with no apparent room for "and." When you get right down to it, there is no basis (other than facile logic) for thinking that money spent on scientific endeavors in space means there will be less money from addressing problems at home.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source:United States Department of Energy/ Wikimedia Commons

What's more, there is no guarantee that money not spent on space exploration would be automatically diverted to dealing with social, economic, and environmental issues. While the argument appeals to a certain concern for humanity and social justice, it is not born out by reason.

Third, if the argument comes down to the question of resources being better spent elsewhere, why single out space exploration? Why not something that's even more expensive and has less demonstrable benefits? Why not something like military spending?

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2014, roughly $1.8 trillion US was committed to military expenditures worldwide. Could this money not have been better spent on humanitarian aid, addressing extreme poverty, or assisting the transition to renewable energy worldwide?

To be more specific, let's look at the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II combat aircraft, which began development in 1992. According to estimates compiled in 2016, it has cost over 1.5 trillion dollars to get this fighter from the drawing board to procurement by the US and other nations' armed forces.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: Master Sgt. John R. Nimmo, Sr. | US Air Force /

Spread over twenty-four years (1992-2016), which works out to an average of over $125 billion annually. These cost overruns have been largely due to design flaws and technical failures resulting in multiple aircraft losses during testing.

But some critics think the program has endured because it has become "too big to kill." Had the program been terminated years ago, could the billions of taxpayer dollars saved not have been put towards addressing social problems? Just saying...

Consider the amount spent annually to subsidize the fossil fuel industry as a second example. According to the International Energy Agency, the value of global fossil-fuel subsidies was over $300 billion in 2017 alone.

However, according to a 2017 study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the University of California, the price tag is much higher. Once you consider all of the indirect ways in which fossil fuels are subsidized - not to mention the costs of dealing with the impact of fossil fuel burning - the total cost comes to a whopping $5 trillion.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: Pixabay

Not only is all that money not being used to address the urgent problem of climate change, but it is also actively financing it. If some of those trillions were to be diverted to financing solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources, would we not see a more rapid decline in carbon emissions?

To be fair, those counter-arguments are also a bit over-simplistic and deflect from the question. But then again, the question itself is very hard to answer. When all is said and done, it isn't easy to take seven decades of space exploration, size up the accomplishments, and reduce it all to a yes/no answer.

But between the cost of resources and the measurable benefits we get from space exploration, a basic cost/benefit assessment should be possible. So let's look at what humanity has gained by going to space over the past few decades, starting from the beginning...

First Forays Into Space

The Soviet Union was the first to make it to space, launching its Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957. Several satellites followed, as well as the first animals (such as Laika the dog), followed by the first man and woman in 1961 and 1963. These were cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, who flew to space as part of the Vostok 1 and Vostok 6 missions, respectively.

The United States followed suit, creating NASA in 1958 and launching the first American satellites with the Explorer program. Test launches (including animals) came shortly thereafter, followed by Project Mercury and the first American astronauts being sent to space (the Mercury Seven).

On both sides, a great deal of time and resources went into developing rockets and testing the effect of spaceflight on creatures big and small. And the advancements made within each national space program were inexorably tied to developing nuclear weapons. 

As such, it can be difficult to differentiate between the cost of some of these early projects and general military spending. Another issue is the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from the early Soviet programs, which were kept secret from Western sources and the Soviet Union's people.

Nevertheless, public cost assessments were made for certain programs (mainly NASA ones). So if we were to consider the kinds of advancements made as a result of a program and then weigh that against the money it took to make it happen, we could construct a rough cost/benefit analysis.

Project Mercury and Vostok:

According to cost assessments made by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covering 1965 to 1984, Soviet government spending on its space program was comparable to that of the United States. As stated in a report that was compiled in 1985 (and declassified in 2011):

"We estimate the annual dollar costs of the program (including research and development, procurement, operating and support costs) expressed in 1983 prices, have risen from the equivalent of over $8 billion in 1965 to over $23 billion in 1984 - averaging growth of about 6 percent per year."

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

Adjusted to 2019 prices, the Soviet Union space program cost the equivalent of $25.5 billion in 1965 - by which time they had already sent six crewed missions to space as part of the Vostok program - and steadily grew over the next few decades.

By this time, the Soviet Union had also conducted multiple test launches and sent numerous satellites into orbit as part of the Sputnik program. So while it is difficult to price individual programs, it is fair to say that $25.5 billion a year was the price the Soviet Union paid to be the first country to send an artificial object and human beings into space.

For NASA, the cost of early crewed spaceflights is easier to assess. This began with Project Mercury, which officially ran from 1958–1963 and succeeded in placing the first American astronaut into space. This was astronaut Alan Shepard, sent into orbit on May 5th, 1961, as part of the Freedom 7 mission.

According to cost assessments made by 1965 (two years after the program ended), Project Mercury cost US taxpayers roughly $277 million over five years. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to a total of 2.2 billion dollars, or $440 million a year.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

Project Gemini, which ran from 1961–1966, sent several more crews into space using two-stage rockets and spacecraft capable of sending two astronauts in a single flight. Based on cost assessments compiled in 1967, this program cost taxpayers $1.3 billion over five years.

Once adjusted to 2019 dollars, that works out to $9.84 billion, or $ 1.97 billion a year. So really, these two programs cost taxpayers over $12 billion over eight years (1958-1966). This brings us to a total bill of about $91 billion, or $11.375 billion annually.

The Race to the Moon

But by far, the greatest commitment in time, energy, money, and expertise went into the Apollo Program. This program called for the development of rockets, spacecraft, and related technologies that would lead to the first crewed missions in history to the Moon.

The Apollo Program began in earnest in 1960 to develop a spacecraft capable of accommodating up to three astronauts and a super-heavy launch vehicle capable of breaking from Earth's gravity and conducting a trans-lunar injection maneuver.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

These needs were met with the creation of the three-stage Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft - which consisted of the Command Module (CM), the Service Module (SM), and a lunar Landing Module (LM). 

The goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade required the most sudden burst of creativity, technological innovation, and the largest commitment of resources ever made by a nation during peacetime. It also entailed a massive support infrastructure that employed 400,000 people and over 20,000 industrial firms and universities.

And by the time the last Apollo mission was flown (Apollo 17, in 1972), the program had cost a pretty penny. According to the NASA authorization Hearings held by the Ninety-third Congress in 1974, the Apollo program cost taxpayers USD 25.4 billion.

Adjusted for inflation, that equals $130.23 billion in 2019 dollars. Considering that that spending was spread over a twelve-year period (1960-1972), this works out to average annual spending of $10.85 billion a year.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

But consider that these programs did not exist in a vacuum, and a lot of money went into other programs and additional support. Regarding NASA's total budget, spending on space exploration peaked in 1965, with a total budget of about $50 billion (adjusted to 2019 dollars).

The Soviet Union was also budgeting very heavily at this time. Doing the math, at 6% growth per annum, the Soviet Union would have spent the equivalent of around $25.5 billion to $46.22 billion a year between 1965 and when the last Apollo mission flew in 1972.

While the Soviet Union never sent astronauts to the Moon in this same period, they did send many more crews to orbit and several robotic explorer missions to the Moon (the Luna and Lunokhod programs) and other bodies in the Solar System.

Pricing the "Space Race":

Any way you slice it, $25.5 to $50 billion a year is a LOT of money! For comparison, consider the Hoover Dam, one of the largest engineering feats in history. This massive hydroelectric operation cost approximately $49 million to build between 1931 and 1936. That works out to about $815 million spread over five years, or $163 million yearly.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

In short, for what they spent on the Apollo Program alone, American taxpayers could have footed the bill for 177 Hoover Dams. Think of the electricity that could have been provided! Or, to use a more robust statistic, the US government has committed $89.6 billion in 2019 to its Health and Human Services department.

In that respect, the Apollo Program costs roughly 14% of what the US government spends annually on the health and well-being of millions of its citizens. If that kind of money were injected into healthcare spending, the US would greatly expand its medical coverage.

The comparison is a bit crude, but it gives you a sense of how monumentally expensive space exploration has been for all who have dared to engage in it. One, therefore, has to ask, what benefits did all this spending bring?

Aside from the national prestige and the inspiration it provided, what tangible benefits can be cited as justification for all the money spent?

What Came Of All This?

The most obvious benefit of the Space Age was how it advanced humanity's knowledge of space. By putting satellites and crewed spacecraft into orbit, scientists learned a great deal about Earth's atmosphere, Earth's ecosystems, which led to the development of Global Position Satellite (GPS) navigation.

The deployment of satellites also led to a revolution in communications technology. Since Sputnik 1 was launched to orbit in 1957, about 8,100 satellites have been deployed by forty countries for telecommunications, television, radio broadcasting, navigation, and military operations.

As of 2019, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) estimated 5,074 satellites are in orbit on Earth. And in the coming years, thousands more are expected as part of the growing telecom and satellite internet markets. In the latter case, these satellites will be essential to meeting the growing demands for wireless services in the developing world.

Between 2005 and 2017, the number of people worldwide who had internet access went from 1 billion to over 3.5 billion - 16% to 48% of the population. Even more impressive, the number of people in developed nations with internet access went from 8% to over 41%. By the latter half of this century, internet access is expected to become universal.

The deployment of satellites, crewed missions, and space stations - culminating in the creation of the International Space Station (ISS) - also had a revolutionary impact on Earth's sciences and our understanding of the planet.

As noted, the study of Earth from space gave rise to the theory that all living organisms interact with their environment to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet - once again, this is known as the "Gaia Hypothesis."

Interestingly, this theory resulted from Lovelock's work with NASA, where he helped develop models for assessing whether or not life could exist on Mars. Thanks to these studies, scientists have understood how life emerged and evolved here on Earth.

They have also been able to create models that predict under which conditions life could exist in extra-terrestrial environments. This goes beyond locations in the Solar System (like Mars or within the moons of Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, etc.) and includes extrasolar planets.

Aside from being a historic feat, which was never before seen (or since), the Apollo missions also resulted in many profound scientific advancements. The study of lunar rocks, which the Apollo astronauts brought back with them, led scientists to theorize that the Earth and Moon were once part of the same protoplanet.

According to this theory, known as the Giant Impact Hypothesis, the Earth-Moon system results from a collision that took place some 4.5 billion years ago between Earth and a Mars-sized object (named Theia). This occurred just a few million years after the Earth formed from the protoplanetary disk surrounding our Sun.

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

The deployment of space-based telescopes has also had a major impact on astronomy and cosmology. By operating in orbit, these telescopes are not subject to atmospheric distortion and can capture images of distant galaxies and cosmic phenomena that would not be possible using ground-based telescopes.

For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has contributed over a million observations in its 30 years of service. These have allowed astronomers and astrophysicists to learn more about the Universe by measuring the rate at which it is expanding (which led to the theory of Dark Energy), testing General Relativity, and discovering extrasolar planets.

This last area of research, which has since been taken up by the likes of the Kepler Space Telescope (KST), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, the Gaia space observatory, and (soon) the James Webb Space Telescope has allowed scientists to search for life beyond our world like never before!

The Kepler mission alone has discovered nearly 4000 candidate extrasolar planets. Of these, 49 planets have been earmarked for follow-up studies because they are considered good candidates for habitability. Once again, looking for life out there is causing scientists to take a good like at how life emerged here.

And then there is the way space travel has brought the world together and facilitated international cooperation. When Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go to space, he instantly became a hero, not just in the Soviet Union. During the frequent tours he did after his historic flight, Gagarin's warm manner and bright smile were said to have "lit up the darkness of the Cold War."

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

The same was true of Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to set foot on the Moon. His famous words, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," are considered iconic well beyond the United States. After returning to Earth, he toured the Soviet Union as an honored guest and delivered an address at the 13th annual conference of the International Committee on Space Research.

During Apollo 11, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a package of memorial items on the Moon to honor astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in training accidents. In addition to Grissom, White, and Chaffee (who died in the 1967 fire that consumed the Apollo 1 Command Module), they also honored Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin - who died in 1967 and 1968, respectively.

Laika the dog, the first canine to go into space, is regarded as a hero by space enthusiasts worldwide. Even though these events all took place during the Cold War, the way these achievements united the world in celebration allowed for a bit of a thaw.

You also have collaborative efforts like the International Space Station (ISS), which 18 national space agencies participated in creating. These included NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and others.

These same countries have regularly contributed both personnel and experiments to ISS expeditions. As of 2019, 236 astronauts have visited the station (many of them multiple times), with 149 being from the US, 47 from Russia, 18 from the EU, nine from Japan, eight from Canada, and individual astronauts from a wide range of countries.

But of course, the benefits of 70 years of space travel go beyond scientific advancements and international cooperation. There are also innumerable technological and commercial benefits that have resulted from space-related government-funded research and development.

Within the United States, these benefits are cataloged by NASA Spinoff, founded in 1973 by the NASA Technology Transfer Program to report on how technologies developed for space missions have been made available to the corporate sector and the general public.

For instance, did you know that NASA-funded research led to the development of Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs), portable cordless vacuums, microwaves, freeze-drying technology, temper foam, video enhancing and analysis systems, computer-assisted design (CAD), Embedded Web Technology (EWT), and weather visualization and forecasting software?


How about health and medical advances like ventricular assist devices (VADs), artificial limbs, food safety systems, water and air filtration systems, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)? It has also advanced our understanding of genetic disorders, osteoporosis, and degenerative diseases.

The list goes on and on, but to break it down, a 2002 study conducted by George Washington University's Space Policy Institute indicated that, on average, NASA returns $7 to $21 back to the American public through its Technology Transfer Program. That's a pretty significant return on investment, especially when you consider the other ways it has paid off.

What Does the Future Hold?

Asking whether or not space exploration is worth the investment is both sensible and necessary. But an equally valid question to ask while considering all that we've derived from it so far is, "Would that have been possible otherwise?"

Would we have seen the same revolutions in communications, computing, transportation, medicine, astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary sciences? Would we have come to learn as much about our origins on this planet? Would we understand just how interconnected life and ecosystems are today?

Pondering these two questions is vital as we embark on an era of renewed space exploration, which will require a similar commitment in time, energy, resources, and vision. It's also worth considering whether or not we will even be able to address our problems here on Earth without investing in space exploration. 

Looking to the next decade and after, NASA, Roscomos, China, India, the EU, and many other space agencies hope to explore the lunar surface, create a permanent outpost there, send astronauts to Mars, explore the outer planets of the Solar System, and search for life both near and far.

All of this will require a lot of money, and it is uncertain what the future budget environment will be like. And while countless innovation promise to make going to space more cost-effective and accessible (like reusable rockets and space planes), we may run into some problems in the future and need to make some sacrifices.

But for now, it seems that we are intent on making the next generation of exploration happen. According to recent polls conducted by Pew Research, most Americans (72%) believe it is essential for the United States to be a leader in space exploration.

The same polls found that 80% of Americans surveyed believe the International Space Station (ISS) has been a good investment for the country.  On the question of the role played by NASA and NewSpace, the polls found that 65% of Americans believe that NASA must continue to be involved in space exploration instead of leaving it all to private industry.

As Manasavi Lingam, a postdoctoral researcher from Harvard University's Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), told Interesting Engineering via email, the benefits of continued space exploration include:

"The ability to greatly advance our understanding of several fields ranging from geology (e.g., learning about other crusts and mantles) to astronomy (e.g., building a telescope on the moon) and perhaps even biology (e.g., extraterrestrial life)."

Is It Worth It? The Costs and Benefits of Space Exploration
Source: NASA

Another way in which we stand to benefit from continued exploration is the expansion of our resource base. "Here, it will be essential not to overexploit the likes of the asteroid belt, Mercury, etc., all of which have substantial abundances of metals," said Lingham.

And, of course, there are the words of the late and great Carl Sagan, who had plenty to say on the benefits of exploration:

"We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars...

"Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds throughout the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will love it no less for its obscurity and fragility. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way."

Given what stands to be gained and what we will miss out on if we stop, the costs of space exploration seem infinitely bearable!


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