Is Extraterrestrial Exploration a Waste of Money?

Kate Smith.

To be a human is to be an explorer and our inquisitive nature has meant that our obsession with discovering the undiscovered is engrained into our lives. Human history is littered with stories of great adventurers uncovering Earth’s secrets. In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe from 1519-1522 and the first dinosaur bone was illustrated by Robert Plot in 1674. These are few, but nevertheless important discoveries that have shaped our modern day society. With such interest in increasing our knowledge of Earth, it was inevitable that we focused our attention on the extraterrestrial. The earliest known telescopes were from the Netherlands in 1608, but it wasn’t until 1946 when the first man-made object, the V-2 rocket, went into space to explore cosmic radiation. Since then the budget allowed for this field of research has increased hugely. In 2005 NASA had a budget of $16.2 billion, ESA sported a healthy budget of $3.5 billion and the total global budget of $25 billion meant that the amount spent per person globally was about $3.90[1]. With such high expenditure, questions need to be asked about whether this is a good use of our money or if we are simply feeding our desire for knowledge with no real useful outcome.

There are three different methods for extraterrestrial research: unmanned space crafts, manned space crafts and ground-based research. An unmanned mission is one which requires no people to be on board the spacecraft. In 2004 a £1 billion unmanned mission, Rosetta, was launched to chase, orbit, and land on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, located 500 million miles from Earth [2]. Ten years later, a probe called Philae landed on it; however, it unexpectedly landed in the shade, just out of reach of the Suns solar power. Eventually the probes batteries ran down and that was the end of the road for Philae. Rosetta continued to orbit the comet and collect measurements of gas and dust and transmit high resolution photographs back to Earth until a controlled crash into the comet in 2016 ended its mission.  The purpose for this mission was fuelled by the potential for comets to harbour the building blocks of life due to their theorised importance in the creation of the solar system. They are made of ice, dust and rock which is likely to be the origin of the first water delivered to Earth. Missions like this engage the public, but when they go wrong their worth are questioned. It was discovered that the chemical signature of the comets water was unique when compared to Earths[3]; therefore questioning whether Earth’s water originated from comets. This knowledge doesn’t increase the quality of life on Earth so could be seen as a waste of money.

Another example of an unmanned space mission is the Curiosity Mars rover.  This $2.5 billion investigation of Mars has been ongoing since 2012[4] with its primary goals including investigation of the climate and geology, assessment of whether there have ever been favourable conditions for life, and habitability studies to prepare for future human exploration[5]. This mission has been a success with samples being tested by the rover, which then communicates its findings to Earth, and astonishing images of the red planet sparking public interest. However, the same previously mentioned concerns can still be applied to a successful mission with regards to the amount of money being invested into such missions which have no present impact on quality of life.

In the 30 year NASA space shuttle program, $209 billion was spent between 1981 and 2011[6].  Unlike unmanned space missions, for a spacecraft to be suitable for human flight, it needs to allow them to breath, eat, drink, sleep, move around safely and make the return trip to Earth among many other specifications. These extra requirements cause the money needed to shoot upwards. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space [7], which was a huge step forward in the space-race, however, arguably the most recognised astronaut is Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the Moon in the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 [8]. The Apollo space programme racked up an impressive overall cost of $25.4 billion ($150 billion in today’s money) [8]. Although rock samples were collected, the main reason for the mission was to be the first superpower to land two people on the surface of the Moon. The 1960s saw global friction between the two cold war rivals, the USSR and the US, and it would seem that the US desire to edge ahead in the space race drove the push to reach the moon first. It stands to reason that this wasn’t a mission to increase our knowledge of the Moon, as the samples could have been collected by other means, but more of an egotistical victory. This period in time was very important for future space exploration as technology progressed quickly; however, it seems very irresponsible for such vast quantities of money and resources to be invested these missions when the immediate motives were not clear.

Finally, we can use ground-based research methods to look at distant planets and their potential to host life forms. From Earth we can use telescopes to find planets orbiting distant stars by fluctuations in the stars luminosity as the planet passes in front of it. The Nordic Optical Telescope; off the west coast of Africa, observed a planet twice the size of Earth using this method [9]. Many ground-based telescopes have surpassed the Hubble telescope in spectroscopic measurements as technology has improved since Hubble was sent into space in 1990. By using high resolution spectroscopy scientists can determine the composition of the atmosphere of an exoplanet. By using the knowledge we have from our own planets size and composition, we can then compare this to the exoplanet and conclude the likelihood of life being present. By being able to carry out this research without having to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, the economic impact is much smaller than space missions. There are plans for the California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT) with an expected cost of $700 million[10],which is still a large amount of money, but nothing in comparison to  space crafts. Other benefits of using these telescopes are that there is no risk of damage whilst trying to get the telescope out of our atmosphere and if there were to be any damages in transportation on the ground, they could be fixed. Also, they can be adapted as better materials or techniques are discovered if they remain on the ground. However, there are limitations, for example, adaptive optics today only work at infrared wavelengths due to other wavelengths being inaccessible from Earth [10]. Hubble, on the other hand, is sensitive to all wavelengths from the ultra violet to near infrared [10].

It is clear to see that the emphasis on extraterrestrial life is huge in humans’ exploration of the universe. The thought of there being so much to discover in the universe excites not only academics, but also the imagination of the public. This enthusiasm is an important part in convincing the public that scientific research is necessary, but there needs to be a balance between the money spent and the necessity of the research undertaken. It is estimated that it would take $240 billion to end global poverty[11], and when this figure is compared to the amount that has been spent on space travel it is a wonder that we choose to spend our money in this way. Although there is not much we can take from the universe to enhance our everyday lives, there have been many discoveries along the way while scientist were inventing space technology that are now used in many aspects of our lives.  Firefighting breathing apparatus used to be so heavy that most firefighters chose to do without whilst tackling flames; however, due to NASA’s research for spacesuits, they cut the weight by a third and improved the fit and visibility [12]. Also, by cutting grooves in the runways, NASA discovered that the excess water drains away making it less likely for returning spacecraft to aquaplane. This has now been adopted by airports all around the world [12]. More close to home, the scratch proof coating on glasses and sunglasses was invented to prevent astronauts’ helmets from being scratched by any particles in space when outside a space shuttle [12]. Who knows if or when these inventions along with hand held hoovers, carbon-fibre reinforcements and pill transmitters [12] would have been discovered without NASAs focus on space technology.

To conclude, I believe that society has changed so that nations collaborate more, which means there is less pressure on individual nations to ‘beat’ others. This in turn means that research tends to be more worthwhile so large amounts of money can be justified. However, I think we need to recognise that discoveries will be made eventually and there should be no great rush to explore every corner of the universe as quickly as possible. Extraterrestrial research has gifted us with some great technological discoveries but sometimes it is more beneficial for the money to be used elsewhere in society and for now our curiosity may have to wait.






[5] “Overview”. JPL, NASA. Retrieved August 16, 2012.










Is Extraterrestrial Exploration a Waste of Money?

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