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Is Spending on Space a Giant Waste?

by Professor Andrew Dempster
07 August 2015
Spending on space programs is often criticised as a huge waste of money and effort. Why not spend such rich resources here on Earth? Professor Andrew Dempster argues space is the place to invest.
When Stephen Hawking announced a search for aliens costed at over $130 million, there were suggestions in Australian articles and comment columns that this was a monumental waste of money. That money is private, and in my view can be spent for that purpose if the owner pleases, but space programs are generally criticised as wasteful.
Some of the criticism compares space with other ways the money could be spent, such as when the Telegraph quotes Eisenhower, "every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed", or articles with titles like “Why Spend Money on Space Exploration When We Have So Many Problems Here on Earth?”. I copped this type of criticism myself when proposing an economic use of space, specifically mining.
I think this type of criticism is misplaced, partly because it confuses and conflates a number of different issues. It’s worth being clear that “space” is not a single activity comfortably contained in one box. It’s worth considering the value of different types of activity in their own right. I suggest three categories we should consider – space exploration, space science and space utility.

"Space" is not a single activity comfortably contained in one box. I suggest three categories we should consider – space exploration, space science and space utility.

Exploration involves putting humans in space and it’s probably the most vulnerable to criticism. Freakonomics presented strong supporting arguments for space exploration back in 2008 – it inspires students of science, technology, engineering and maths (an interesting argument has been made that enrolments in these subjects follows NASA funding), NASA costs Americans one twentieth of what they spend on alcohol, and returns are worth it. Counter arguments are that countries, especially developing ones like India, are going to space for the “wrong” reasons like “flag-waving”, that space treaties are not yet ready for human expansion, and that it encourages humans not to think of resources as finite, incentivising unsustainable living.
Space science is relatively easy to justify, if science can be agreed to be justified, with the added bonus of the great publicity and inspiration it generates. One need only look at the wonder of the current coverage of Rosetta, New Horizons and Dawn on their missions to Comet 67P, Pluto and Ceres respectively (although these missions could be seen as grey areas in my taxonomy, as they also perform non-human exploration).
Now let’s turn to space utility. Space currently delivers three major services – communications, remote sensing and position, navigation and timing (PNT). These services are now so embedded in our lives they can themselves be considered critical infrastructure. We sometimes forget when we use our smart phones for directions, for instance, we are using satellites in space.
In fact, of the 18 critical infrastructure sectors identified in the U.S., 15 rely on GPS timing and the other 3 use GPS positioning. In other words, the entire economy relies on satellite PNT services. The value of satellite navigation receivers alone will rise from $59.4 billion in 2012 to $143.9 billion in 2022. And there are several systems other than GPS.
In communications, it’s not much different. It’s been 53 years since we first started relying on broadcasts “live via satellite”, and now communications satellites provide a global capacity of nearly 1000Gbps.
There are almost 200 earth-observing satellites currently in use, about 90 of which are for weather. The value of these to the global economy is estimated at $858 billion. Our current one-week weather forecasts would only be valid for three days if satellite data weren’t used. The argument against India’s space program is weakened in the light of the recent announcement that it has made more than $100 million from launches of such satellites.
Even with Australia’s very modest engagement with space, it was estimated in 2011 that the space sector had turnover of $1-2.2 billion with about three times as much contributed to the wider economy. Spatial information, much of which comes from remote sensing and navigation satellites has been estimated to contribute 0.6-1.2% of Australia’s GDP. Augmented satellite navigation alone has added $2.3-3.7 billion to GDP, and will rise to $7.8-13.7 billion by 2020.

Is it ethical for an advanced economy like Australia to use only remotely-sensed data supplied freely by others without providing any itself?

These services should not be bundled with human space exploration when deciding whether space programs are worthwhile – these services are fundamental.
If you’re looking for an ethical argument about this sector, then you may want to consider whether it is ethical for an advanced economy like Australia to use only remotely-sensed data supplied freely by others without providing any itself. Australia is the largest economy not to have a space agency to prosecute such a space program and there are many reasons we should have one, not the least of which are that we should be solving our own problems, and helping those less fortunate.
The space business is changing and becoming increasingly commercial. Enterprises such as space tourism and off-earth mining are emerging and they are likely to be the next frontier not just of business, but also of arguments as to whether we should be “out there”.
Professor Andrew Dempster is the Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research in the School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications at UNSW.

Image credit: tableatny | Flickr.