The True Cost of Space Programs and Their Potential Gains
Ever since Apollo 11 touched down on moon, generation after generation has been obsessed with space travel. Movies like Interstellar, Gravity and the Martian add more thrill, excitement and wonder to the dream of space exploration. In fact the drive to reach out into space and travel beyond earth is in some manner embedded into each and every one of us.
Fantasizing, dreaming and even studying about space research and travel is one thing but it is a completely different ball game when it comes to actually setting up a space program on a national level. Of all the countries in the world there are only seven government space agencies namely
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- China National Space Administration (CNSA)
- Iranian Space Agency (ISA)
- Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
- European Space Agency (ESA)
- Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
- Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA)
These are the only 7 space agencies operating in the world right now and it can be seen now that why most developed nations do not have their own space programs. It is simply too costly to set up a space program but the question is, is cost the only factor? Well a lot of other things are costly too but countries end up going after those things. So what really is the true cost of setting up a space program and then running it?
Elements of Cost
It must first be understood that the term cost doesn`t only apply to monetary cost. Monetary cost is just one aspect o space exploration; there are also other elements of cost such as time. It takes time to set up and get a space program running, in addition to time then you have got the opportunity cost. Yes, opportunity cost is a very relevant cost here because the money and resources that a country redirects towards its space program could have been used elsewhere.
For example if a country hasn`t got a good health care system or a social welfare system then for the general population of that country it won`t make much sense to spend billions of dollars into the space program when the same amount of money could have been used for the welfare of the local population.
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One can however say that this is how an economist thinks, in terms of scarcity of resources but countries do take decisions that go against common economic sense. India for example is a perfect candidate for this. India isn`t exactly a developed nation, it is still developing and has a very great social divide in terms of economic inequality. Between 2005 to 2016 India was ranked 49 in the global poverty index but this didn`t stop India from pursuing its space research program. Last year the ISRO had an allocated budget of almost $2 billion and India has already attempted to land rovers on Mon and sent research missions to Mars.
So why is it that India is pursuing a costly space program when it could have simply diverted the same resources to bring the people out of poverty and focus on their wellbeing? Well because space programs have other benefits apart from simply helping a country explore space. Space programs also serve to give military edge to a country and from India`s perspective India it is vital to have military edge over not just China but also Pakistan.
Same scenario applies to Iran, the country has been under sanctions since decades but they still managed to recently put their recon satellite into space. The Iranian space agency had an allocated budget under $5 million in 2019, perhaps the lowest budget for any space agency and they managed to put their satellite into space after a few failed attempts. Once again, Iran has got a failing and crippled economy and these $5 million could have been diverted into other areas of economy but Iran prioritized sending a recon satellite into space in order to get a military and intel edge over the likes of USA and Israel. This was so significant that even the White House remarked that Iran`s ability to go into space was a game changer for the region because this meant that Iran is now self dependent when it comes to intel gathering through satellite recon.
Space programs therefore are pursued not only for the purpose of exploring space but also to get military edge over rivals, in fact this goes back to the days of cold war when USA and USSR were engaged in a race to reach space, their goal too was to get technological edge over each other. When countries think in this manner, they link their sovereignty with space research and all of a sudden the opportunity cost doesn`t look that bad.
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However in order to have a space research agency like that of NASA, a country needs long term planning. Firstly, a country must have the knowledge base to be able to research and develop the delivery system to put space probes into the space.
Weaponizing the space program is just one aspect but space research on its own is a different ball game. In order to carry out space research like NASA or ESA you need to have universities, observatories and researchers and setting up the infrastructure for this takes decades. This is why USA and Europe lead the world when it comes to space research and exploration because they have got the support network to operate their knowledge base, with economies of scale.
The knowledge base is just one aspect, in order to be able to put a satellite into space you will need a delivery system. If you look at Iran then Iran had this advantage, they have already got a very sophisticated missile system that they showed off in January by striking the Ein al Assad base in Iraq where US troops were based. Once a country has got a capable enough missile delivery system then they can use it to carry the space probes into space. This however is still costly if you look at what SpaceX has done. SpaceX has basically given USA an absolute cost advantage over other countries when it comes to space travel. The reusable rocket boosters have reduced the cost and sent the likes of China and Russia in a frenzy to develop a similar system, in order to be able to compete on cost with USA.
So what is the true cost?
The USA has recently launched a space force that will apparently protect the space? Well even if the idea sounds rather ridiculous, it will give USA military edge over its two main rivals China and Russia. NASA is already going to attempt to not only go back to the moon but set up a moon base and Elon Musk is hopeful to set up a base on Mars in the next decade. Not to mention that the proposed BFR by SpaceX, which is a transport system that SpaceX is developing, if it passes tests and works then Elon Musk intends to use it to cut down air travel time. Using the BFR you can travel from one corner of the world to the other in under 30 minutes.
So when you look at the cost of pursuing a space program, then you lose out on public welfare, health, education and other departments that need funding. However if a country decides not to purse space research and exploration then it risks not only losing its technological edge but also a military edge over its rivals.
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