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Science, Maths & Technology

Are space missions too expensive?

Updated Thursday, 10th May 2007

Andrew Morris defends the money spent on scientific space missions.

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I was part of a podcast earlier today. It sounds very new age and indeed the Microsoft spellchecker still does not recognise ‘podcast’ but none the less I still took part in one.

At first I was a bit confused what one might be but I got the impression it was a recording made for use upon the internet. This probably means that you can download it to your hearts content and compare the contents with all the ‘wiki’s’ and ‘blogs’ that you desire.

However, I digress. The podcast was very interesting. Definitely for myself but I also hope for everyone that can figure out how to get hold of it (as yet it has not been posted but I will add a new blog saying when it is).

The participants included several PhD students like me, studying space sciences, and an equal number of students who were in several stages of studying environmental science. What took place was effectively a debate led by the environmental scientists based around their understanding of space science.

The reason I found it so interesting was the fact I was able to witness first hand the questions that people outside my own field have of my topic. This is not something that I come across every day and I embraced the opportunity.

What came across loud and clear is that there is an opinion that all the money that is spent on space science may not be worth it. I strongly disagree. This may be of no surprise seeing that I have already chosen to pursue a career in space science but it actually goes a bit deeper than that. I really do believe that what we as a civilisation gain from space missions far outweighs the millions of pounds that they require.

I won’t list all the points and counter points of the podcast since 1) hopefully there will be a link for you to listen yourself at some point and 2) the other members of the podcast won’t have the chance of reply since it is only myself writing this. What I will do is ramble on about why I think space science is all worth it.

scientists do not simply pile money into a space craft and shoot it up into the heavens

First things first. Yes, space missions cost a lot. It is many times more than an average annual salary. I make no apologies for this. Simply put. Space missions are that expensive because the technology being used is cutting edge, never before seen, completely new. Things at this end of the spectrum don’t come cheap.

Everyday a scientist works on a novel space mission they are discovering something new, which no-one else has encountered previously. This involves putting money into the project and it is also the major reason why the International Space Station (ISS) budget spiralled out of control.

Also let’s not forget that scientists do not simply pile money into a space craft and shoot it up into the heavens never to be seen again. Most of the money spent on space is spent here on Earth. People’s salaries, unique test rigs and individual experiments also find their own place within any budget. Even with a lost mission there is a horrendous amount of expertise and technology that is left in its wake.

Taking Beagle 2 for example, it never completed its primary mission. However it did challenge conventional mission design. Never has a mission been so densely packed with scientific equipment and had it succeeded, which it oh so nearly did, it would have made future space missions several times cheaper. When asking GCSE students how much they would have individually paid for Beagle 2 to launch, if they had the disposable income, the answers ranged from about £20 to £1.50. The truth is that Beagle 2 cost the tax payer 80 pence each. You find that kind of money behind the sofa. Compare that with the cost of refitting the Trident submarines or changing the carpets at John Prescott’s house and you can understand the frustration of space scientists. On top of this we get the unforeseen ‘spin-offs’. The research into any space mission normally focuses around miniaturisation and that happened with Beagle 2. The mass spectrometer that tells you what elements are present in a sample is now, for example, the ideal size to fit at the end of a production line guarding against food unfit for human consumption entering the food chain.

The space missions currently being undertaken beyond the Earth can be counted using only your fingers, give or take. The space missions that actually never leave Earth orbit far out number the missions to the farther reaches of our solar system. These missions in Earth orbit sometimes look out into deep space, such as the Hubble Space Telescope but most of them look back at the Earth. These may be communication satellites which serve there purpose but it also includes missions to monitor the state of our home planet. No other method allows us to take such large amounts of high quality data over the ranges that space missions allow us. It is directly from the measurements taken by instruments in space that legislation is being enforced to protect our tiny blue marble. When it is suggested that the money is better spent elsewhere sorting out the problems on Earth, that is exactly where it is being spent. Even missions to the planets Venus and Mars can give huge insight into the fate of our own. Venus appears to have a run away green house effect and ancient Mars appears to have been similar to the Earth with running water upon it's surface. The conditions upon our celestial neighbours may paint the picture of our fate and it would be folly not to investigate how it occurred there and how it can be avoided here.

I could go on, and I probably will in a later blog, about the benefits of space science and why it is so worth the investment, but for now I will end since I am sure you have better things to do than read my rants.





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