I thought about how much does one rocket cost to build and launch and it came up with roughly $500 million including everything.

That made me pause and wonder for myself what it is that's out there that might be worth this money, and reflect upon the many problems on Earth that could be addressed with these resources instead.

I also wondered about NASA, with all the technology, why couldn't it find a way to cut cost on rocket launches? Then SpaceX comes up with ideas made one launch cost ~\$60 millions so from ~\$500 millions. That's a lot of money; NASA and those who ultimately fund it could have saved money for other problems we have.

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    $\begingroup$ Whether space exploration is worth it is a value judgement, i.e. an opinion. Opinion based questions are not a good fit for this site. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2019 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ If we're leaving it open, let's make sure it gets fully answered with the total amount spent by all space agencies since day 0 and list all the benefits accruing from that as well as why NASA is more expensive than SpaceX. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ Incidentally, is this only asking about human spaceflight? It never says that. So be sure to include military spending on space too. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ Ok that's great answers and now i got an ideas about how good the space exploration... And that's actually the money spent is worth it . thank you all $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory XKCD: The Economic Argument. Astronomy and space exploration got us GPS among other things. Also see NASA Technologies Benefit Our Lives and friends. The articles list LED's, artificial limbs, anti-icing systems, highways safety, improved radial tires, freeze drying technology, improved baby food, improvements in batteries, improvements in solar energy ... $\endgroup$
    – jww
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 5:41

7 Answers 7


1. We don't talk about huge sums

This is the money that countries spend today to space exploration, in the proportion of their GDP:

enter image description here


As you can see, the governments already seem to agree your view.

2. Space Exploration sometimes makes money and doesn't spend it.

The long-term tendency is likely a profit-oriented race of private companies.

It’s hard to say since the company is privately held, which means its books aren’t open for inspection. The belief among most analysts, however, is that SpaceX must, by now, be making money. It has \$4.2 billion in contracts from NASA alone and its recent success in cracking the defense contract business—breaking the monopoly United Launch Alliance enjoyed with the military—means more revenue. All of this is on top of its contracts for private satellite launches, giving it 60 launches over all on its manifest, worth about \$7 billion. That’s a lot for a company whose main selling point is that it can launch satellites for about a third of the cost the older companies do, clearing a lot of cap room for profits. There is much speculation over when and if Musk will go public and there is much hope on Wall Street that he will. SpaceX’s rep is partly sizzle, yes, and there is no guarantee it will be a big moneymaker over the long term.


3. The cost of space launches is quickly decreasing

Launch costs to low Earth orbit, 1980-2100 enter image description here

Note also, that the diagram is logarithmical on the y-axis.


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    $\begingroup$ I feel like that graph from FutureTimeline needs a warning about extrapolation from a small dataset. (Not to take anything away from the red historical data - that's great!) $\endgroup$
    – craq
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 0:51
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    $\begingroup$ Does the US space budget in the graph include private spending on space, e.g. SpaceX, commercial satellite launches, &c? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ To put the GDP spending in perspective, the US is spending 4.5% of its GDP on the military. War trumps science. War even trumps peace, and the US does not want peaceful, non-violent solutions to conflict. The US government even went so far to squash a sizeable grant to the Albert Einstein Institute. $\endgroup$
    – jww
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I suspect, it is the money what the U.S. government spent to space exploration. Thus, the money what the NASA paid to the SpaceX, is there. But the money, what the SpaceX has got from other companies, or from other governments, to launch their satellites, is not. $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 6:01

That made me pause and wonder for myself what it is that's out there that might be worth this money, and reflect upon the many problems on Earth that could be addressed with these resources instead.

Well, most of the money spent on space launches is used for launching satellites to Earth orbit. So what you're basically getting for the money is satellites, satellites and more satellites. And what good are those?

Well, here's a few things:

  • Broadcasting: Ever watch satellite TV? Even if you haven't, directly, there's a good chance that many of the programs you've watched have been relayed over a satellite link at some point on their way to you. In more remote parts of the world, satellites are still often the only practical way to receive television signals.

  • Communications: Besides TV and other one-way broadcasts, satellite networks also allow bidirectional telephone and Internet connections everywhere on Earth. For people living in remote areas, or in parts of the world where ground-based communications infrastructure is lacking, it's often the only option. You may also have used satellite Internet yourself without even realizing it, if you've e.g. recently taken a long plane or boat trip where WiFi was available (as it increasingly often is, nowadays).

  • Navigation: Ever use a GPS navigator? You probably have, since your cell phone probably has one built in. Those work by receiving signals from a large cloud of government-launched satellites. Originally, those satellites were launched for military purposes (having your ships, planes and missiles know exactly where they are and where they're going is pretty useful), but they turned out to be incredibly useful for civilian purposes as well.

  • Mapping: Speaking of navigation, your phone and your computer nowadays also have access to satellite imagery covering pretty much the entire Earth. That imagery, by the way, has plenty of other uses besides just looking pretty and helping you figure out where you are; for example, archaeologists have used freely available satellite images to locate traces of ancient civilizations. Oh, and it has also made the creation of accurate and comprehensive maps a lot easier.

  • Search and rescue: For people in remote areas (which includes e.g. ships on the open sea), satellites are good for more than just(!) navigation and maps — in an emergency, they can also be used to send a call for help, and allow rescuers to quickly find their way to the correct location.

  • Weather forecasting: While ground-based weather stations still have their place, modern weather forecasting relies heavily on satellite weather monitoring. Those 10-day weather forecasts you can nowadays read in any newspaper, or get for free on your phone, would not really be practical without lots and lots of detailed weather data from satellites.

  • Climate and environmental monitoring: The same weather satellites used to produce modern weather forecasts have also given climate scientists access to an unprecedented amount of detailed and global data. (Indeed, one of the biggest difficulties with modern climate modelling is that they don't have that kind of high-quality data for historical periods from before all those satellites were launched.) And other satellites allow us to monitor things like the quality of seawater, the growth and logging of forests, the thickness of the ozone layer, the extent of glaciers and sea ice, etc. While satellites alone may not save the planet from environmental damage, they at least allow us to clearly see what's happening to it.

  • Military: This is a bit of a philosophically ambiguous case. A large fraction of all satellites have been launched for military purposes, and arguably, from a global perspective, that's all a zero-sum game with no net benefit to mankind. But from the viewpoint of the countries launching those satellites, they're incredibly valuable. And, of course, sometimes those military satellites do turn out to have useful civilian applications as well (see e.g. GPS navigation above).

Oh, and satellites (and other space launches) have also given humanity a new perspective on the planet we live on, allowing us to see it for what it is — a small blue-green orb in the vast emptiness of space. I don't think that cultural and psychological contribution is in any way negligible; without space exploration and satellite imaging, there would have been no Whole Earth Catalog, no Apollo Earthrise, no Pale Blue Dot. And I think, as a species, we would be poorer for it.

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    $\begingroup$ On the subject of civilian applications for military satellites, see also "climate and environmental monitoring": the old Corona spy-satellite imagery has been declassified and is being used for things like mapping glacial retreat. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Partnered with the Pillsbury Company to create, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). NASA needed: "a means of ensuring any food sent to space was absolutely absent of disease-producing bacteria and other toxins"; "a system of testing at points throughout the manufacturing process that would ensure all end products were to the same acceptable standard." $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ "Pillsbury drew inspiration from NASA's engineering critical control point concept and applied its concepts to the manufacturing process of food products. This strategy allowed for the prevention of contamination rather than evaluating the end product. It would prove highly successful as in now an industry standard in over 150 countries around the world." – 15 Space Age Inventions and Technologies We Use Everyday $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ Related to Climate and environmental monitoring: Greenhouse gases were proven to impact global climates significantly by looking at Venus. Looking at Venus in sufficient detail requires satellites. Also missing: Materials / technologies developed for space travel are now common place. Teflon; memory foam; dustbuster; scratch resistant lenses.... $\endgroup$
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 9:53

Don't you think there are other problems down here on earth deserves some care?

This is a naive proposition. A large government cannot and must not focus all of its resources on one problem. The United States has immediate problems such as undernourished poor people, poorly maintained roads, and retired military personnel who have lost limbs in the service of their country. It has intermediate term problems such as dealing with less than friendly nations and combatting terrorism. It has longer term problems such as ensuring the country remains competitive, that the populace is well educated, and that the country remains at the forefront of science. These are just a few of the many concerns the United States government, or any large government for that matter, must constantly address.

And why NASA with all the technology couldn't find a way to cut cost on rocket launches.

You should realize that NASA has invested heavily in SpaceX, and has done so for the last 13 years. SpaceX arguably would not exist had it not been for those heavy investments. NASA made those heavy investments against the more pork-laden elements of Congress. Those port-laden elements are what has driven the development of the Space Launch System, aka the Senate Launch System. But just as NASA is not of one mind, neither is Congress. Some elements of Congress have seen that those pork-laden approaches are not the best way to go.

NASA is required to follow the budget mandates levied by Congress and the President. One of those mandates has been to invest in private approaches to space transportation. This has been a smallish but very successful endeavor.

Another mandate is to use a more traditional pork-laden approach. The investment in pork has also been successful, at least from the perspective of some elements of Congress. Congresscritters are elected (and reelected) in part based on their ability to bring home some bacon.

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    $\begingroup$ Agree with both of your points. There are some politicians who claim that less government funding is needed because it can be done by private space programs. Nonsense! As your second point proves, SpaceX wouldn't even exist if not for government support. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ Naivety is an understatement. You could fund NASA for almost 4y with the difference left over from subtracting NASA's 61y total budget (~$600B) from the US military's annual budget of ~$700B. Now, to say we don't need the military would also be naive, but does the US really need both the first and second largest air forces in the world? For some perspective: you can have one whole year of NASA... or 8, eight, F22 Raptors. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:31

What are the benefits for me and you?

The benefits are many and varied. This is an incomplete list:

  1. Improved weather forecasts. These save lives every year, and save billions of dollars in damage caused by extreme weather. This also improves crop yields, etc.

  2. Improved knowledge of Earth. Lots of satellites observe the Earth in a variety of ways. This information is used in any work that requires geographical knowledge: planning of agriculture, infrastructure, roads and buildings, monitoring of our ecology etc. Think about that: we're better able these days to fix problems on Earth because we can see where those problems are and who causes them.

  3. Communications. The world is vastly more connected now than it was in 1940. This leads to improved understanding, better tools for collaboration, new economic relationships etc.

  4. Navigation. Being able to accurately arrive at your destination without getting lost is an incredible benefit.

  5. Spinoffs. The huge budget for the Apollo manned program brought huge advances in the development of the computer chip. That alone has shaped the world we know today. Other advances from that program were in materials science and project management (Apollo was the largest-scale project in history).

Many space launches are commercial these days. Take for example this list of all launches of 2017. The vast majority is commercial or utility applications (communications, earth observation, navigation). When a communications satellite costs \$500M to build and launch, it is launched because it will bring in more than \$500M in revenue for the company that owns it.

Investment in space has a return on investment of more than 1: you get more money out than you put in. Even prestige programs like Apollo have huge benefits to society:

MRI concluded that the \$25 billion (1958) spent on civilian space R&D during the 1959-69 period returned \$52 billion through 1970 and will continue to stimulate benefits through 1987, for a total gain of \$181 billion

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    $\begingroup$ You could also add fly-by-wire technology for aircraft & miniaturization of electronics, with the use of integrated circuits, which accelerated the computer chip industry, which then led to smaller computers & eventually to mobile phones. Also, computerized automation, via the Apollo guidance computer. Don't forget Tang ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred: Don't forget mylar plastic, velcro, memory foam, solar cells, fire detectors, water purifiers, freeze dried food, ear thermometers, and cordless tools. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ IMO this is the right answer because it gives a figure for return-on-investment, which is what the OP seems to want. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 8:46

Comparison (US expenditures only):

  • \$18 billion is spent per year on simply advertising cosmetics.
  • \$60 billion is spent per year trying to lose weight.
  • \$70 billion is spent per year on pets.
  • \$230 billion is spent per year on advertising.
  • \$0.5 billion is spent per rocket.

Just think how many of the world's problems could be solved if we didn't waste so much money on space programs.

In fact, the cost of space programs is just round-off error when looking at so many other things that most people would consider far less important than solving the Earth's many problems.

  • $\begingroup$ Also worth noting is the US Federal budget is \$1.1 trillion (\$1100 billion), and not all funds spent on rockets come from that. $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 13:00

That made me pause and wonder for myself what it is that's out there that might be worth this money, and reflect upon the many problems on Earth that could be addressed with these resources instead.

I would add to the other great answers another very valuable outcome our society gains from space exploration: medical research (and health is arguably one of the top issues we have as living organisms).

This Wikipedia page gives some examples of medical products that were derived from space exploration. A few examples from the list:

  • Radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer
  • CAT and MRI scans
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • Muscle stimulator devices

From this ESA webpage:

Fundamental research, towards a better understanding of the human organism and its survival and wellbeing under the harsh conditions of space flight, contributes to the improvement of human health in space as well as on the ground. Fundamental research contributes also to the development of biomedical instrumentation and tools useful for the improvement of health both in extreme and normal conditions terrestrially.

Studying the adaptation of the human body to weightlessness provides a unique opportunity: being free from the gravity factor that is confounding and can mask discreet and/or too subtle effects: for example diffusion processes are of order of magnitudes smaller than convection effects; thus isolating diffusion from convection is always a challenging task on Earth while in microgravity convection no longer exist.

The resulting better understanding allows improving our knowledge of human physiology. Therefore, improved models of human physiology and innovative methods for diagnosis, preventive measures, and treatment are developed and can often be adapted for terrestrial application, which in the end leads to improved health care on Earth.

Many synergies are carried over by such research: tools required for the health monitoring in extreme terrestrial environments and accompanying living and working conditions in such environments presents similarities with the one required for space, but also ‘analogous’ conditions such as sedentary life or involuntary physical inactivity presents similarities with the consequences of spaceflight on human physiology.

Human exploration of space contributes to human physiology and psychology research as well towards the development of miniaturised and smart tools, sensors, and (remote) monitoring systems and protocols. R&D in biomedical instrumentation, therefore, also represents a key area of work in innovative and breakthrough technology.


NASA's investments are providing a massive Return on Investment(ROI)

This article makes the case that NASA has provided a 1000% ROI

A report by the Space Foundation estimated that activities related to space contributed $180 billion to the economy in 2005. More than 60 percent of this came from commercial goods and services created by companies related to space technology. The space economy includes commercial space products and services. It also includes commercial infrastructure and support industries. It also counts aerospace budgets in private companies.

That means that each dollar of NASA spending is a catalyst for $10 of economic benefit. NASA is in a unique position to provide some of the technological innovation that drives the space economy. NASA research led to many of the goods and services we take for granted every day. These include weather and communication satellites. That allowed ATM machines, which provide an immediate electronic response via satellite. It also allows GPS, which was developed by the Air Force for military applications.

Other technologies developed for exploring space are now used to increase crop yields or search for good fishing regions.

How much for granted? The Gulf of Mexico sees hurricanes and tropical storms every year and predictions there save lives. Satellites have let us watch the entire ocean and watch them form days (sometimes weeks) in advance, and even predict where they will go. That means ships no heading into storms. That means people evacuating in advance. This kind of imagery saves lives.

NOAA satellite picture of a hurricane


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