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The (controversial) case for human space exploration


Why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars to send people into space when robots could do the job much more cheaply? This is the question asked by Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees this week, and it echoes the sentiment of a good portion of taxpayers in the Western world. The question gains particular relevance as the economy becomes, shall we say, questionable and Americans continue to tighten their belts in the wake of the worst inflation rates in over 40 years. According to the Reuters report, Rees feels “sending people into space when robots could do the job just as effectively [is] a waste of public money, and space exploration should be left to billionaires and those willing to pay for trips themselves.”

The Royal Smart Person continued, “Now that robots can do the things that humans were needed for 50 years ago, the case for sending people is getting weaker all the time.”

So, is he right? Should we remain safely ensconced in our La-Z-Boys, ordering DoorDash so we don’t have to pause the next Netflix Hype House episode, while we send drones and robots to roam the surface of the Moon and Mars in our place? Furthermore, if we decide that it’s worth the (considerable) expense to launch humans into space, who should pay for it?

Who should pay for space exploration? And is it even worth doing?

Hindsight and nostalgia being what they are, the majority of people today feel that the Apollo Moon landings were worthwhile. However, it may surprise you to know that a 1961 Gallup poll showed only 33% of Americans supported a Moon landing. reports, “Aggregations of opinion polls in the 1960s and 70s have shown approval of the moon landing was consistently lower than disapproval. Even [among] astronomers polled, [the majority] were…  against the mission. Only in the weeks before the moon mission was approval recorded at 51% in one Harris poll. [Even] in the aftermath of the moon landing, approval for that specific mission didn’t meaningfully budge. [Only] 47% said it was worth it a decade later… and it would take 20 years for amnesia to set [in] and this number to reach 77% in 1989.”

Remember though, that most of us who approve of the Apollo Moon landings in retrospect aren’t the people who had to pony up the dough at the time. There was considerable political and public pressure against Kennedy’s aggressive space plans. The cost to the American taxpayer became truly huge, and at the final tally, the Apollo missions alone cost $25.4 billion (calculated in 1973 dollars), or about $177.5 billion corrected to 2024. That’s a lot of cabbage, by any estimation.

As far as 21st-century Americans' feelings on continuing space exploration go, 2023 Pew Research shows that nearly 70% of Americans feel it is essential that the USA continue to maintain the role of world leader in space. However, only about 1 in 10 feel that sending humans to explore the Moon and Mars should be a top priority. So, NASA has a bit of a public-relations challenge on their hands.

Whenever gobs of public money are involved, people need to be convinced. Cajoled. Marketed to. Assured that they’re getting good value for the money that they could otherwise be putting toward the latest iPhone or Meta virtual reality headset. Or, you know, stuff like groceries and gasoline.

Scientific American said in 2008, “Every [human space] launch… is a media event. NASA presents its astronauts as ready-made heroes, even when their accomplishments in space are no longer groundbreaking. Perhaps the best example of NASA’s public-relations prowess was the participation of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, in the 1998 shuttle mission STS-95. Glenn’s return to space at the age of 77 made STS-95 the most avidly followed mission since the Apollo moon landings. NASA claimed that Glenn went up for science—he served as a guinea pig in various medical experiments—but it was clear that the main benefit of Glenn’s space shuttle ride was publicity, not scientific discovery.”

Today, as one example, the Artemis missions to return humans to the surface of the Moon are sold to 2020s-era folks who are (at least partially) paying for the trip by NASA press releases prominently stating the mission priorities of landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon.

Still, irregardless of whether you want to pay for it or not, the Artemis program is a go, and has already cost American taxpayers an estimated $40+ billion over the past decade or so, with a projected additional expenditure of $53 billion through 2025. In a time when our government seems to be able to throw around numbers like Billions and Trillions with reckless abandon, the estimated $4.2 billion per-launch cost of the first 4 Artemis missions might seem like pocket change. But make no mistake, we’re approaching (some estimates say we’ve already exceeded) $100 billion (with a B) and haven’t yet come close to landing our definitively female person of color on the surface of the Moon. So, you may ask yourself: Why are we doing this?

Make no mistake, sending robots to the Moon, Mars, or other places in space is still very expensive, but it’s far cheaper than sending hoomin beans. People need to be kept alive in the paradoxically/simultaneously raging inferno and bone-freezing cold of space (depending on your position relative to the sun and/or on planets or moons). People need to be kept warm enough and cool enough (as aerospace environmental control systems—ECS—nerds, that’s our favorite bit). People need to be able to, you know, breathe, and eat, and excrete. Space exploration gets really complicated—and really expensive—when messy, fragile, brilliant, emotional, abstract-thinking, sometimes irrational human beings want to go in person. 

So, should we leave it to the gazillionaires, as Rees suggests? Elon Musk’s SpaceX has most famously made the case for privatized space flight, and has made successful orbital space launches not just routine but boringly reliable. In 2023 alone SpaceX broke all records and launched 96 successful orbital missions, an average of better than one every 4 days. However, though Elon may spin this aggressive space launch schedule as having a fundamental benefit to humanity, it’s clear that one primary reason for the rapid-fire orbital launches is to deploy CubeSats that will make up a megaconstellation of low-orbit satellites to facilitate Musk’s Starlink domination of the satellite-based internet market. You could posit that yes, Starlink allows internet connectivity for the first time in super-remote locations in Africa and elsewhere, and we’re sure lots of good for humanity can come of that. But as we reach out into space further than low Earth orbit and the costs increase exponentially, we arrive back at the question of whether space exploration should be publicly or privately funded. 

Is space exploration too expensive to justify the cost?

Space exploration, and more specifically the technologies, materials, economic stimulus, and jobs that have derived from it, have real monetary and societal value, according to some scientists and thinkers. Organizations like the National Space Society argue that space travel has effectively paid for itself: 

Confirmation that space pays may be found in the 1989 Chapman Research report, which examined just 259 non-space applications of NASA technology during just 8 years, 1976-1984, and found more than:

  • $21.6 billion in sales and benefits
  • 352,000 (mostly skilled) jobs created or saved
  • $355 million in federal corporate income taxes

Other benefits, not quantified in the study, included: state corporate income taxes, individual personal income taxes (federal and state) paid by those 352,000 workers, and incalculable benefits resulting from lives saved and an improved quality of life. The 259 applications represent only about 1% of an estimated 25-30,000 space program spinoffs. The benefits were in addition to benefits in the space industry itself and in addition to the ordinary multiplied effects of government spending. When space program money was spent, new industries were left behind to generate more money (e.g., computers, electronics, fabrics, composites, ceramics, metallurgy). Without the focus of our space goals, such cutting-edge technologies would not have emerged.

Other studies have called these statistics into question. But certainly, space and aerospace have encouraged or facilitated multiple technological breakthroughs (such as superalloys and advanced composites) resulting from the problem-solving inherent to launching people and objects into space. 

Is there fundamental value in human exploration?

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences wrote, “We define exploration as an expansion of the realm of human experience—that is, bringing people into new places, situations, and environments, and expanding and redefining what it means to be human [emphasis added].”

So, should we have waited and sent robots and drones to the top of Mount Everest, rather than Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay? Should Cole Brauer have sent a robot to sail her boat nonstop around the globe? Would Jacques Cousteau’s multiple inventions have come to fruition had he elected to send drone/robot cameras to the depths of Earth’s oceans rather than insist on exploring them himself?

If we listen to people who have been there and done that, we find unique and significant value in personal, physical human exploration. There seems to be something inherently beneficial in sending people to experience for themselves what many astronauts have experienced, even when “just” looking down upon our fragile, little blue planet from space: “The beauty of the landscape, and the mountains, and the deserts, and you start to think of how they were formed. You realize just how special the place we are is, and you feel that connection. When you look at the Earth from that vantage point, you don’t see the borders. You don’t see political borders, and you hardly see geographical borders. From no distance do you see the different colors [from a traditional map or globe] that makes countries easy to distinguish… you don’t see all of those geopolitical, man-made boundaries that we’ve imposed upon ourselves as humans. You don’t see any of that from space… You forget about politics, you forget about the daily life that plagues us on the ground… and you just feel this sense of commonality more in something that unites us all, in that we’re all human.”  

Robots don’t experience these epiphanies. And remotely sent images don’t convey this  metaphysical sense of oneness. If you prefer a more pragmatic justification of sending humans into space, Scientific American puts it succinctly: “Machines… do not possess as much flexibility as people. Machines can be designed to fix expected problems, but so far only people have shown the ability to handle unforeseen difficulties…. Astronaut explorers can perform science in space that robots cannot.” 

Potential geopolitical, monetary, and/or technological benefits aside, as The Atlantic says, “If the goal of space travel is to expand our knowledge of the universe, exploration will be most effective when carried out by astronauts rather than robots on the surface of a planet.”

So, whether the expense is borne by taxpayers or by private industry, our advice to humanity is: Do. Act. Move. Risk. Feel. Suffer. Rejoice. Experience. Learn. Live. Explore.

–By Jeff Davis, Intergalactic Scribe