From the launch of Sputnik - the first artificial satellite - in 1957, through to the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, the first moon landing in 1969, and beyond, both superpowers in the Cold war invested huge amounts of money in trying to outdo each other in the so-called ‘space race’. At the time, this was a convenient project to choose: while it allowed the two nations to compete in a supposedly peaceful area, proving their scientific achievements, the work on rockets also fed directly into work on the inter-continental ballistic missiles, which would allow them to strike at each other with nuclear weapons in the event of war.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the future of space exploration has become less clear. Russia no longer has the resources to invest in a substantial space program; without an enemy to compete with, the USA has also cut back on its exploration programs. The emphasis is now on missions which are ‘faster, better, cheaper’ – grand projects such as the Voyager missions of the late 1970s seem unlikely to be repeated. In particular, the American commitment to manned exploration of space has diminished, especially after the 2003 Columbia disaster, when all seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle died during re-entry. President Obama has scrapped a planned return to the moon, turning to private companies and foreign nations to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. On the other hand, China has been developing an active space program in recent years with several manned flights, while India is also beginning to launch its own rockets.
Since Sputnik was launched in 1957, the space race has given rise to an infrastructure, particularly in the United States and Russia, which can be exploited for economies of scale. The cost of developing shuttles and training astronauts is far cheaper in Cape Carnarvon where the necessary equipment and skills lie to do so. Furthermore, the International Space Station costs upwards of $100 billion, however it serves as a terminal where shuttles can thereafter be pointed to any corner of the universe1. The potential therefore is to save costs by using the existence of the ISS as a stepping stone to elsewhere. To not use fifty years of space development and technology is to render all that investment meaningless.
1 Kaku, M. (2009, July 16) The Cost of Space Exploration. Retrieved June 22, 2011 from Forbes
If only it were true. The typical shuttle mission to the International Space Station costs $500-700 million. Private individuals, space tourists, have managed it for just $20 million a head1. Therefore, there is little in the argument that the existing space infrastructure is driving costs down. Furthermore, whilst the ISS has been justified as a terminal for the shuttles, the shuttles themselves have been justified as means to reach the space shuttle; a circular argument that offers little hope to the space explorer. Moreover, despite over fifty years of investment, NASA specifically has maintained a shuttle program at the expense of new materials, new fuels and innovative concepts1. As such, the technology has not advanced significantly since the original missions to the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The infrastructure, in this case, appears to have been more of a hindrance and intellectual barrier to development and cost-cutting than an aid.
1 Kaku, M. (2009, July 16) The Cost of Space Exploration. Retrieved June 22, 2011 from Forbes
Sending humans into space or to other planets so that they can erect the flag of a particular nation is a distinctly nationalistic act and one that is likely to create aggressive 'races' in the future just as it has before. China's manned program is openly intended to challenge the US dominance of space for the Communist regime's huge propaganda benefit. George W. Bush's pledge to boost spending on NASA and to restart the manned mission to Mars program was a direct response. This is damaging not only because of the potential for space race conflicts to escalate into greater international hostility, but also because of the way such races could result in the militarization of space, thereby turning something which should be preserved for the common good of humankind into a neo-colonial battlefield.
Since the "historic handshake in space" when a US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in 1975, the two countries have in fact grown increasingly close. This relationship involves sharing technology (which is almost all 'dual use' i.e. it could be used for military purposes as well as civilian, thus requiring a high degree of trust), scientific knowledge and working side-by-side to build and support the ISS. With the involvement of the 11 member states of the European Space Agency as well as Canada, Japan and Brazil in the project, space is one of the few spheres where governments have been able to put aside their differences in pursuit of something more fundamentally important to humanity.
NASA during the 1990s spent over a third of its budget simply keeping the ISS manned and the Space Shuttle working1; it will now spend $60 million per seat to use Russian transport to the ISS2. The vast majority of its spending on scientific research comes through ground based research, telescopes and unmanned missions. China has made no claims that there is a scientific benefit to its manned mission and nor has Russia in recent years. There are few experiments so important that they can justify the huge cost needed to allow them to be carried out by humans in zero gravity. NASA made a lot of noise about growing zero-gravity protein crystals as a potential cure for cancer when it was trying to justify building the ISS but has since dropped the claims as experiments have shown the claims were overstated. There are few experiments so important that they can justify the huge cost needed to allow them to be carried out by humans in zero gravity.
1 New York Times. (1995, March 6). Is NASA Among the Truly Needy? Retrieved May 19, 2011, from New York Times
2 Stein, K. (2011, May 18). Critical juncture for U.S. human spaceflight. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from The Examiner:
The positive benefits of space exploration are innumerable and profound. As Joan Vernikos describes, '43 countries now have their own observing or communications satellites in Earth orbit.' Such satellites provide the G.P.S that directs our transport, meteorological forecasts, global monitoring of the environment, as well as surveillance and intelligence for our national security1. Furthermore, the common misconception that NASA has a huge budget is just that; in 2007, the NASA budget of $16.3 billion was dwarfed by the overall G.D.P of $13 trillion1.
1 Dubner, S. J. (2008, January 11). Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? A Freakonomics Quorum. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from Freakonomics:
High ideals are all well and good, but not when they come at the expense of the present. Our world is marred by war, famine, and poverty; billions of people are struggling simply to live from day to day. Our dreams of exploring space are a luxury they cannot afford; U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman stated in the wake of President Bush's 2004 proposals that money was needed 'right here on Earth to give health care that's affordable to everybody, to improve our education system and do better on veterans' benefits and homeland security.'1 Instead of wasting our time and effort on macho prestige projects such as the space programme, we must set ourselves new targets. The money spent on probes to distant planets would be better invested in the people of our own planet. A world free from disease, a world where no-one lives in hunger, would be a truly great achievement.
1 Pop, V. (2004, January 19). Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? Retrieved May 19, 2011, from Space Daily:
Space exploration gives back more than it takes from the treasury. Dr. Joan Vernikos, a former head of NASA Life Sciences, argues ‘economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment…royalties on NASA patents and licenses currently go directly to the U.S. Treasury, not back to NASA.' Furthermore, as Keith Cowing points out, the funding for space exploration is insignificant compared to our other discretionary spending: ‘Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol (in 2006); We spend $10 million a month in Iraq; all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year." Cowing also points out the fact that ‘the money is spent on the earth – it creates jobs and provides business to companies, just as any other government program does’ (Dubner, 2008).[1
Dubner, S. J. (2008, January 11). Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? A Freakonomics Quorum. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from Freakonomics:
Engardio, P. (2005, December 27). Engineering: Is the U.S. Really Falling? Retrieved May 19, 2011, from Businessweek
Kaku, M. (2009, July 16) The Cost of Space Exploration. Retrieved June 22, 2011 from Forbes
New York Times. (1995, March 6). Is NASA Among the Truly Needy? Retrieved May 19, 2011, from New York Times
Pop, V. (2004, January 19). Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? Retrieved May 19, 2011, from Space Daily
Stein, K. (2011, May 18). Critical juncture for U.S. human spaceflight. Retrieved May 19, 2011, from The Examiner