During this week’s Burnet News Club session, we began to talk about space exploration and it’s contributions to society. We brought up the International Space Station, which we had been learning about during our science lessons last year, and were shocked to find out that it cost over $150 billion dollars (not to mention that £3-4 billion dollar yearly cost on top of that simply to maintain it). This cost makes the ISS the most expensive object ever made, which got us thinking: is it worth the cost?
The main drawback in our minds was the sheer cost of the thing. A quick Google of the question: ’is the ISS worth the cost?’ brought up a multitude of webpages that showed us that we were definitely not the first people to ask this question… A guardian article from 2006 even went as far as to call the ISS ‘a costly mistake’, ‘an embarrassment’ and something that is ‘yet to produce any science worthy of its colossal price tag’.
Another article on a website named ‘Death By Cosmos’ gave us an even more detailed cost analysis of the ISS. NASA currently contributes an on going $3 billion dollars per year out of its $19 billion dollar budget to maintain and operate the ISS. Compare this with the $2.9 billion dollars used to design, launch and maintain the Curiosity rover that is currently exploring the surface of Mars. We are learning a lot more from the Curiosity rover than we are from the ISS, at only a fraction of the cost! If the ISS were to be scrapped, NASA alone would save enough money to fund the construction of 10 similar rovers that could be sent to Mars or even to explore other planets in the solar system. From a scientific perspective, is this a better use of NASA’s money?
Perhaps, in fact, you might be thinking that we don’t need more rovers. In that case, stopping funding on the ISS for just a year would give NASA enough additional money to build a giant space telescope that might allow us to explore even deeper into space than ever before.
We decided, however, that there must have been a reason that the ISS was constructed in the first place, and that that reason must have been pretty good for so many countries to invest such a large sum of money in its development! We then looked at what the ISS was designed to do. It was primarily constructed as a space environment research laboratory in which scientists would be able to conduct experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and other fields. Because of its location, the station is also suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars, which sounds fantastic in terms of future space exploration!
In addition to serving as a science laboratory, the ISS is important for the future of space tourism and long-range space exploration (e.g. humans exploring Mars etc) because the ISS itself is an experiment. It is an exercise in hands on learning and how to live and work (and play!) in space for months or even years. It has allowed scientists to observe changes to people’s bodies and health and to plan and try out adaptations to make life easier, which will massively beneficial if we ever want travel into space to be more accessible for the masses!
In fact, NASA themselves have continued to reiterate that the ISS is an essential component of its journey to Mars. It has said time and again that the information gained about human health in the closed ecosystem and microgravity environment of the ISS is crucial for sending humans to Mars. A human mission to Mars may end up being a three-year ordeal, so figuring out how to live and work in space for long periods of time is essential. Importantly, the ISS is sitting in low Earth orbit, where a return to Earth is only a matter of hours away if there were to be any issues. In comparison, if astronauts were to travel to Mars, they would be orbiting many months away from Earth! Surely it is better to find out and fix any problems closer to home before we even consider sending people deeper into space…
In our minds, we kept coming back to the cost. $150 billion dollars is, after all, a lot of money. However, a trawl through the NASA website helped us understand why they continue to put money into the ISS and why they are planning to continue this funding until 2024. NASA are, essentially, using the ISS to keep a large chunk of their allocated budget safe- almost like banking it or investing it for future use. The current plan is that, in 2024, the money will all be shifted towards developing a deep-space habitat- a habitat for the Martian surface- and a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) with which to launch samples (and eventually humans) from the surface of Mars back to Earth.
If this plan works, astronaut videos and Q&As that are currently happening from the ISS in low Earth orbit will soon be happening from deep space, for example orbiting the moon, as soon as 2025! Spacewalks won’t just be happening in orbit around the earth but beyond the Earth’s orbit! That’s certainly an exciting thought!
In conclusion, although the International Space Station may seem to be an unjustified burden on finances at the present moment, we believe that the it holds the key to a brighter future culminating in humans being able to travel to Mars. Sure, it’s an expensive stepping stone but, in our opinion, it is a stepping stone that we are lucky to have in place.
What do you think? Is the ISS worth it or would NASA be better off investing elsewhere?