5. Is Spaceflight a Waste of Money?


This section deviates somewhat from the main “debunking” theme of this site – but it’s a subject close to my heart, and one about which I feel very strongly.
As a lifelong spaceflight enthusiast, it always annoys me when I hear people complain that spaceflight is “a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money”, or some such description. Of course, this is a matter of opinion, and those who hold that view are entitled to express it – but I strongly suspect that many of those who do so have simply not bothered to research the facts, or given any thought to the benefits of spaceflight and space research.
When you mention “spaceflight”, most people will think of manned spaceflight – which is, of course, extremely expensive, and many may well question whether its benefits justify the cost. But here, I’m concerned mainly with unmanned spaceflight – the thousands of Earth-orbiting satellites which serve a multitude of useful purposes, and the robotic probes which have revolutionised our knowledge of the planets. With the exception of a handful of major projects, the cost of unmanned spaceflight is usually a small fraction of that of manned missions.


5.1. Benefits to society

An acquaintance of mine, who was vehemently opposed to spaceflight, for reasons which I was never able to fathom, once expressed the view that “The average man in the street doesn’t give a damn about spaceflight”. That may be so – but at the same time, today’s “average man in the street” takes it for granted that he can:

So what exactly does he think makes all of those things possible?
Communications and meteorology were among the very first benefits of spaceflight. The first experimental communications satellite was launched as early as 1960, and the first commercial one in 1964. Today, we take worldwide communications for granted – and as nearly all of these satellites are paid for and operated by commercial companies ( with the obvious exception of military ones ), the cost “to the taxpayer” is in fact zero. They are paid for by the customers of the telephone and television companies.
The use of satellites for meteorology also dates back to the early 1960’s, and satellite imagery has completely revolutionised the science of weather forecasting. There can surely be no doubt that the benefits of this justify its relatively modest cost; as the most obvious example, the advance warning of a hurricane, before it hits land, may well save hundreds or thousands of lives.
Another benefit, which may be less obvious to the layman, is that of the Earth resources satellites. Also since the 1960’s, satellite imagery has been instrumental in discovering previously unknown reserves of fossil fuels and other minerals; it stands to reason that these satellites soon pay for themselves!


5.2. Benefits to the military

The benefits of satellite technology to the armed forces of the developed world – primarily communications, navigation and reconnaissance – are so obvious as to hardly need stating. And of course, some of the useful gadgets we now enjoy in civilian life, such as GPS and SatNav in cars, are spin-offs from military technology.
There’s no point in saying much on the subject of military technology, because those people who are opposed to spaceflight often tend to be the same people who are opposed to war – however justified and necessary it sometimes is – and protest about their tax money being spent on arms. In any case, I’m really concerned here with the peaceful uses of space.


5.3. Benefits to science

The scientific benefits of spaceflight have been recognised from the very beginning; in fact, that was the very reason that it was started.
Anyone who knows their history knows that the early “Space Race” was driven mainly by the politics of the Cold War, and consisted of a competition between the United States and the then Soviet Union, to demonstrate technological – and by inference, military – superiority. That was certainly the driving force behind the two countries’ respective manned programmes, and the race to the Moon.
But the idea that spaceflight began for those reasons is a myth; it actually started for purely scientific reasons. The USSR and USA launched their first satellites in 1957 and 1958 respectively; it’s no coincidence that 1957-58 was also the International Geophysical Year. The initial decisions to launch satellites, on both sides, were made for purely scientific reasons; it was realised that observations from orbiting satellites would greatly benefit the IGY. But before either programme had even got off the ground, so to speak, both were “hijacked” by the politicians for their own purposes.
It’s true that the very first satellite, Sputnik 1, served no scientific purpose, apart from the obvious one of simply launching a satellite to prove that it could be done. That was because the Soviet engineers were pressured by the politicians into launching a satellite – even one that didn’t do anything useful – purely for the propaganda value of having done it first. But satellites which did serve useful scientific purposes, very quickly followed. The United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1 – launched just four months later – not only carried scientific instruments, but actually made a vitally important discovery; it discovered the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts.
The benefits of spaceflight to astronomy are obvious! An orbiting telescope is free from the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, and can therefore achieve far better imaging resolution than any ground-based telescope of comparable size. Astronomical satellites – of which the Hubble Space Telescope is the best known, but far from the only one – have revolutionised many areas of astronomy. Some may question the value of orbiting telescopes, as they don’t produce any tangible benefits, i.e. anything which is of practical benefit to society. But then, how do you put a price tag on pure knowledge?
The Hubble Space Telescope was one of the most expensive of all unmanned space projects – in fact, it isn’t entirely separated from the manned programme, as it was launched into orbit by a space shuttle mission, and has subsequently been serviced and repaired by shuttle crews – and there have been many criticisms of its cost. Indeed, after its launch, when its optics were found to be flawed, it appeared, for a while, that a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money had been wasted! But its optical deficiencies were overcome, due to an ingenious and heroic effort by NASA, whereby during the first “servicing” mission, a shuttle crew installed some custom-made optical components which corrected the defects. Since then, the HST has been the most successful and productive scientific space mission in history, and has been responsible for advances in astronomy which are simply beyond price.
The HST was designed to enable it to be serviced and repaired at regular intervals, and failing components replaced when necessary, by shuttle crews; this is precisely why it has operated for so long. But after the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, NASA announced that, even when the shuttles resumed flying, there would be no more servicing missions, and the HST would in effect be scrapped. The reason, or at least part of it, was to do with shuttle safety; it was decided that all future shuttle missions must be launched into orbits which would enable them to rendezvous with the International Space Station, so that even those missions not connected with the ISS would be able to dock with it and use it as a refuge, in the event of any problem – if necessary, sending up another shuttle to rescue the crew. This ruled out any future HST servicing mission, as that would require an orbit which wouldn’t allow the shuttle to reach the ISS. However, the decision was reconsidered after a storm of protests from the scientific community; several astronauts announced that they would personally volunteer to fly on the next servicing mission, and accept the extra element of risk, because they considered HST so important. At the time of writing, the future of the HST is uncertain.
[ Update, June 2009: In May 2009, the space shuttle Atlantis performed a final Hubble servicing mission, replacing some of its instruments with updated ones, and repairing some faulty components. This should extend Hubble’s life by a few more years – hopefully until its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is ready for launch.
Due to the impossibility of reaching the ISS, NASA had a second shuttle on standby on the launchpad, to rescue the crew in the event of any problem with Atlantis. Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary, and the crew returned safely. ]
The other major benefit of orbiting telescopes is the ability to observe at wavelengths which are inaccessible from Earth. There are many regions of the electromagnetic spectrum – the far infrared and ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays – which don’t penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, so they can’t be observed at all from the ground. Before the Space Age, astronomers’ view of the Universe was limited to a small subset of the spectrum; satellite observations at all those other wavelengths have changed the science beyond recognition.
This revolution began in the 1970’s, with various small satellites, but has culminated in recent years with NASA’s series of “Great Observatories”. There were four of these – though one has ceased operating – launched between 1990 and 2003. The Hubble Space Telescope, the best known and first to be launched, observes in visible light and some way into the ultraviolet. It was followed by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, which observes in the infrared. Compton ceased operating after nine years, due to failing components; the other three are still in service.
The Space Age has also created an entire new scientific discipline – planetary science. Since the 1960’s, robotic probes have changed the other planets of the Solar System, in our perception, from being “astronomical bodies” to being worlds to be explored. Spacecraft have now been sent to every planet – at least, by the current definition, following the “demotion” of Pluto. And for those who still prefer to think of that little world as a planet, a probe is now on its way there.
If anyone doubts the value of such exploration, it surely stands to reason that studies of the other planets will help us to better understand our own, and to protect and preserve it ( see Section 5.4 ).
I could enthuse for thousands of words about the achievements of interplanetary exploration – for example, Russia’s Venera probes showed us the surface of Venus, which is forever hidden beneath its dense clouds, and NASA’s increasingly sophisticated landers and rovers have transformed our knowledge of Mars and its geologic history – but this isn’t the place. Instead, I’ll illustrate the point by saying a little about a single mission, which was one of NASA’s greatest triumphs – Project Voyager.
Just in case any readers are not familiar with the Voyager probes, these were two small spacecraft, each weighing about one ton, which were launched in 1977 to the outer Solar System. They took advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets ( it was incredibly lucky that this occurred just at the time when we first developed the ability to exploit it ), which made it possible for a single spacecraft to be sent to all four gas giant planets in turn – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – by using gravitational “slingshots” at each planetary encounter to accelerate it on to the next. This is exactly what Voyager 2 did, though its sister craft visited only Jupiter and Saturn.
Two much smaller and far less sophisticated probes, Pioneers 10 and 11, had preceded them to Jupiter – and Saturn in the case of Pioneer 11 – but their mission was really only a preliminary reconnaissance; it was the Voyagers which produced the spectacular results. Both probes flew by Jupiter in 1979, then Saturn in 1980 and 1981. Voyager 1 was directed to make a close flyby of Titan, Saturn’s biggest satellite; this required a trajectory which prevented any further planetary encounters. But Voyager 2 went on to fly by Uranus in 1986, and finally Neptune in 1989.
Two bigger and more advanced probes, Galileo and Cassini, have since been sent to Jupiter and Saturn respectively, and studied those planets and their satellites far more extensively – but it was the Voyagers which paved the way. Indeed, many of the objectives of these later missions consisted of studying in more detail phenomena which had first been revealed by Voyager. Voyager 2 remains the only spacecraft to have visited Uranus and Neptune.
The Voyagers’ achievements are all the more impressive, given the relatively primitive state of their technology at the time they were built, compared to that which we take for granted today. For example, their onboard computers had less memory than today’s pocket calculators and mobile phones! Their controllers also demonstrated a remarkable degree of adaptability and resourcefulness, and were able to overcome a series of problems which threatened to jeopardise the mission. For example, after Voyager 2’s Saturn encounter, its camera scanning platform – used to track the cameras to compensate for the spacecraft’s motion during long-duration exposures – jammed. Ground controllers modified the software, and transmitted the upgrade to the probe, to enable it to achieve the same effect by using its attitude thrusters to rotate the entire spacecraft!
Four planets with a single spacecraft; can anyone possibly say that that wasn’t value for money? Voyager probably represented the greatest return for the investment of any space mission in history. ( See Section 5.5. ) It’s no exaggeration at all, to say that these two little spacecraft revealed to us more knowledge about the giant planets, and their multitude of satellites, than had previously been learned in more than three centuries, since the invention of the telescope!


5.4. Protecting our own planet

People who consider spaceflight a waste of money usually come up with something on which, in their opinion, the money would be better spent. One of the commonest arguments is the one that, “All that money would be better spent on solving our environmental problems here on Earth!” Of all such arguments, this one is the most ridiculous and ill-informed, for one very simple reason; the two most important environmental problems with which we are currently faced – global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer – were both discovered as a result of spaceflight!
Actually, the general depletion of the ozone layer was discovered by means of sounding rockets – not exactly spaceflight, but closely related. But the huge “hole” in the layer over Antarctica was discovered in Landsat satellite images. This came as a massive shock to scientists; it was completely unexpected.
So what about global warming? The phenomenon of the Greenhouse Effect was discovered on Venus, before it was ever even suspected on Earth! In the 1960’s, when the first Mariner probes flew by Venus, their measurements revealed, for the first time, that the planet’s surface is far hotter than had been expected, based on its distance from the Sun; in fact, it’s considerably hotter than the surface of Mercury. The probes also revealed the composition of Venus’ atmosphere – mainly carbon dioxide, with a surface pressure 90 times that on Earth.
In trying to explain Venus’ anomalously high temperature, scientists realised that its dense atmosphere would trap heat, and that the planet had experienced a “runaway Greenhouse Effect”; this was when the term was first coined. Not until after the phenomenon had been explained for Venus, did anyone begin to suspect that it might be happening on a lesser scale on Earth, due to human industries increasing the amounts of CO2, water vapour and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
So it’s entirely due to spaceflight, that we initially became aware of the greatest threat to our own planet. Surely this, in itself, is sufficient justification!


5.5. So how much does it all actually cost?

I’ll conclude this section with a few thoughts about the actual costs of spaceflight, to put things into perspective. When we hear that such and such a mission cost so many hundred million dollars, it sounds like a huge amount of money – but in terms of a nation’s gross national product, and compared with the amounts which governments routinely spend on arms and defence, it isn’t really that big a deal. In fact, even during the Apollo years, NASA’s entire annual budget was less than one percent of the United States’ GNP.
First, a few words on how NASA’s projects are funded. Its more expensive projects – such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which cost around one billion dollars, and planetary probes such as Galileo and Cassini, with comparable costs – each have to be individually approved by Congress, and the necessary funds allocated. But NASA’s budgets also include a certain amount – a couple of billion dollars per year – of “discretionary” funding, to be used for “low budget” projects, which don’t require individual approval by Congress. “Low budget” is defined as less than $150 million.
Now for an example of what these figures actually mean. Once again, let’s consider the Voyager project, as described in Section 5.3.
In 1989, after Voyager 2 made its final encounter with Neptune, I was dismayed to read a letter in a British newspaper, which said something along the lines of, “Voyager 2 may be a marvellous technological achievement, but it’s also a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money, which could have been spent on… blah blah.” I wrote a reply, which the paper unfortunately didn’t print, pointing out the sheer stupidity of this argument, for reasons which I shall now explain.
The total cost of the Voyager project was $850 million. That sounds like an enormous amount of money, especially as we are talking in 1970’s and ‘80’s dollars. But… Consider first that that expenditure was spread over a period of 17 years – 5 years of research and development prior to launch, and 12 years from launch to the Neptune encounter. Then divide it by the population of the United States, which at the time was about 220 million – and we find that the actual cost of Voyager was – and please check the maths for yourself – all of 23 cents per US citizen per year!
“A scandalous waste of money”??? I’d say that was one of the greatest bargains in history!
Of course, the costs of projects such as Voyager almost pale into insignificance, when compared with those of the manned space programme! This has always been far more expensive, and the subject of far greater criticism. But even here, we should put things into perspective; even the cost of manned spaceflight is but a tiny fraction of the United States’ and Russia’s defence budgets.
By far the most expensive space project of all time was Apollo. This was, of course, primarily motivated by Cold War politics, rather than science, and would never have happened without that motivation. But at the same time, the Moon landings did produce a scientific legacy, which is simply beyond price.
The total cost of the Apollo programme, spread over 11 years from inception to completion, was $23 billion – which is a pretty serious amount even today, but was quite incredible in 1960’s terms! But consider this; during the same period, the US was spending $30 billion per year, on its disastrous military campaign in Vietnam. And the entire cost of Apollo, spread over those 11 years, was comparable to the amount which the American population, at the time, spent on cigarettes in one year!
I rest my case.


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