April 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Space exploration commands big budget and potentially few obvious benefits to the average person. So why do we still invest in it?

Ever since the enlightenment, humanity’s scientific progress has marched steadily forward. Famine, plague and two world wars have failed to cause this unwavering progress to falter, resulting in unparalleled standards of living across the globe. Yet 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 per day [1], and even those in developed countries are sometimes displeased with the state of their public services. Hence, the case that the $1.5 trillion [2] spent on research and development annually across the world should be spent on these issues instead is by no means dismissible.

Space exploration, of course, is one area of research which is especially controversial in this regard. Big-budget, and with very few obvious benefits to the average person, the taxpayers who fund it might quite rightly ask why their hard-earned money should be spent on this. To explore this question, I asked multiple friends and family members for their opinion, from whom the answer was unanimous: human curiosity is the reason that we have transcended all other life forms on the planet and freed ourselves from the shackles of our biological instincts. Scientific research has allowed us to achieve things that were once only possible in the domain of gods , and some of our finest discoveries and technological innovations have been direct or indirect products of our mission to explore the stars. Whether it be new treatments for osteoporosis, methods to create more efficient and less polluting internal combustion engines, or even better tyres and healthier baby food, space exploration has touched nearly every aspect of our lives!

Nevertheless, we must not look at this issue in isolation; for a fair analysis, it is important to compare the efficacy of the money spent on space exploration to the possible benefits of the money being spent elsewhere. The UK spends £371 million per year [3] on space technology; what else could that money do? Pay for 200 million school lunches; hire 10,000 high school science teachers for a year; donate 200 million insecticide treated mosquito nets [4]; this money could be saving lives, and it takes a cruel-hearted person not to consider these alternatives. But compare this space spending to other areas: the UK’s education budget is £86 billion [5], and our foreign aid spending is over £13 billion per year [6]. Whilst cutting our spending in space technology could indeed make huge differences in some areas, it is estimated that we would need to invest all of the space budget 80 times over [7] to get the NHS back to a fully functioning state by 2020. Yes, the money could be put to beneficial use elsewhere, but I believe our relatively low spending on space endeavours is likely to lead to disproportionately large technological, scientific, and medical gains. If you are one of the more than 1 billion people who uses Google Maps every month [8], you regularly make use of just one of this plethora of gains. Would you not agree that it’s a worthwhile investment?

But in fact, perhaps there is no reason why the two options of technological advancement and the mitigation of poverty must be so mutually exclusive. In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark argues that for any high-level society or intelligent life form, improving its model of the world is a natural subgoal arising from the drive to improve its capacity to accomplish an overriding goal [9]. Hence, if the goal of human society is to bring everyone’s standard of living up to the level of the current Western world (which remains a separate discussion), then improving our scientific knowledge is necessary to allow us to imagine more efficient and effective solutions to this problem.

Humans are, more than anything else, explorers. We stand out from other species because we have reached a level of consciousness where we can override our biologically evolved goals. The resulting awareness of the vastness and beauty of our universe, at the largest and smallest scales, is what drives us to constantly push the boundaries of what we can experience, do and be. Above all else, we should continue to learn about and explore our universe because stretching the limits of what we think is possible is what gives us purpose, and makes us human.


[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_research_and_development_spending

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_Space_Agency

[4] https://futureoflife.org/background/trillion-dollar-nukes/

[5] https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_education_spending_20.html

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39658907

[7] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/verdict/how-much-money-does-nhs-need

[8] https://www.theverge.com/2017/5/17/15654454/android-reaches-2-billion-monthly-active-users

[9] Life 3.0, Max Tegmark, Chapter 7: Goals.


Benjamin Cliff is studying for a BSc in Mathematics at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Space exploration, Jaymantri / Pexels