Is manned space flight a waste of money?

Sending humans into space is an admirable civilisational goal, but is the expense of nation-state funded projects justifiable? Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees would argue that it’s not:

“The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space?” said Rees. “I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.


Speaking to Cambridge Ideas, Rees remained enthusiastic about manned space travel, but thought it would be rather different in style from what we have seen before.

“I hope indeed that some people now living will walk on Mars, but I think they will do this with the same motive as those who climb Everest or the pioneer explorers,” he said.

“I think the future for manned space exploration will be a cut-price, high-risk programme – perhaps even partly privately funded – which would be an adventure, more than anything practical,” he said.

Not everyone agrees, of course – including the Obama administration, China, India and the European Space Agency. But I think Rees has a point, in that nation-states aren’t going to provide the main thrust of such projects in the long run, at least not in the West; they’re too risk-averse to pull it off within budget. Commerce will be the driving force, if there is one… as suggested in Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars, perhaps.

3 thoughts on “Is manned space flight a waste of money?”

  1. I’m inclined to agree with Rees. Unless one takes Stephen Hawking’s warning that Outer Space is mankind’s insurance policy (, there are very few practical reasons for manned exploration.

    I agree with Hawking and I also feel strongly that we are a species which demands frontiers for our own well being. With an aging population, over crowding and other earthly misadventures, it behooves us to find as many ways as possible to preserve the species.

    Plus, I love the idea of just moving outward.

  2. Economically manned space isn’t a great idea, but not everything should be done with money being the ultimate goal. That’s why we are in the economic mess we are currently in.

  3. Manned spaceflight costs too much, but that’s because we trying to do it with the wrong technologies. We’ve been spending $8,000/kg to LEO in part because our space operations are not very cost-effective, but largely because chemical rockets just can’t give us the specific impulse to get good mass ratios. Nuclear rockets could do better in theory, but we really don’t know how to build them (fission reactors weigh too much; fusion reactors are always 30 years away). But ground-powered systems like laser propulsion or maglev catapults could be built right now, and could have launch costs well below $1,000/kg to LEO. Granted there’s a high upfront cost, but the same systems can launch unmanned cargo missions for a few hundred dollars / kg to help pay the cost. And massive projects like a launch catapult would be a major stimulus in the current economic climate.

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