I’d like to pull it back to the here and now–to see what humanity as a whole seems to be planning in terms of space exploration. I’ve complained a lot about NASA’s woeful lack of funding–our National Aeronautics and Space Administration gets about 0.48% of America’s federal budget, while our Department of Defense gets 28%-38%.
But how does NASA stack up globally? Turns out we’re still on top in terms of space exploration funding–by a lot. NASA’s annual budget of ~$16 billion–while pitiful compared to our $700 billion+ in annual military spending–is about three times larger than that of any other governmental space organization on Earth. I’m not sure whether to find that encouraging or discouraging.
Without further ado, here’s how NASA stacks up compared to other national space programs capable of manned spaceflight, and the world’s most ambitious private space technology startups:
Compare budget to: $16 billion is also the total amount of aid international donors promised to Afghanistan today.
Current projects include:
- Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) – An SUV-sized exploration rover which will land on Mars in August of this year. It is equipped to search Mars for signs of life, study its geology and climate, and help pave the way for a future manned mission.
- Kepler Telescope – This telescope was responsible for locating over 1,000 extrasolar planets in the past year alone, including five potentially earthlike worlds. Of these five, so far only Kepler 22b has been confirmed to be of earthlike mass and well within the habitable zone around a relatively sunlike star.
- James Webb Telescope – A planned telescope so staggeringly large and powerful that it would orbit the Sun instead of the Earth. James Webb would, among other things, allow spectroscopic analysis of the atmospheres of many alien planets, enabling us to look for signs of life and/or habitability. Its launch date has so far been pushed back due to funding issues, from 2015 to 2018. Some question whether the 2018 date is feasible with future budget projections.
Funding for the James Webb Telescope was nearly nixed altogether in 2012’s fiscal budget. It was reinstated at the last minute after a fight between the House (whose budget nixed it) and the Senate (who wouldn’t pass said budget).
- Others: NASA continues to run countless projects studying our Sun, the other planets, the Earth itself, and even theoretical physics and the human body. NASA’s other projects include experiments in zero gravity medicine, enclosed agricultural systems, and seeking confirmation of predictions of general relativity and other key physics theories.
Compare to: $5.83 billion in housing loans were approved by the Saudi Arabian government to construct 14,000 houses last week.
Current projects include:
- COROT – This forerunner to the Kepler telescope is still in operation, and detected a couple dozen extrasolar worlds in the years before Kepler came online.
- Mars Express – A Mars probe mission beginning in 2004. A forerunner to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, Mars Express also studies the Martian climate, geology, and potential biology.
- Mars500 – ESA astronauts cooperated with the Russian-based Mars500 simulation, in which a team of 6 astronauts lived together in a metal can for two-and-a-half years to test the psychological challenges a real Mars mission team would face.
- Others – like NASA, the ESA runs a fleet of projects including studies of Earth’s climate and magnetic field, the Sun and other worlds, new space navigation technologies, and physics phenomena that can only be studied from orbit.
Compare to:$5.17 billion is also the amount of money that Paramount Pictures made worldwide in 2011.
- International Space Station – Up to 50% of Russia’s space program resources has gone to participation in the International Space Station, to which the Russian Federal Space Agency has contributed two core modules and many astronauts.
- Mars500 – Russia conducted the Mars500 simulation, addressing the psychological challenges that would be faced by Mars astronauts living in an enclosed space for years on end. The ESA also contributed to this project.
- Angara rocket family – This line of rockets is intended to improve performance for the launch of unmanned vehicles, and is expected to become the workhorse for Russia’s space probes and other unmanned launches in the future.
- Like other space programs, Russia conducts studies of Earth’s climate, astrophysical phenomena, and other bodies in our solar system. Though its satellite fleet is somewhat smaller than the NASA’s or the ESA’s due to the large proportion of its efforts Russia has dedicated to the ISS.
Compare to: $1.32 billion is also the amount of money paid to buy Collective Brands shoes away from Payless this past Spring.
- Chandrayaan-1 – This lunar probe was launched in November of 2008.
- Mars Orbiter mission – India is planning a Mars rover mission, which it hopes to launch by 2014.
- Satellites – Like all space programs, India has a fleet of satellites. Most are used for meteorological and telecommunications purposes, rather than theoretical science.
Compare to: $1.3 billion is also the amount that Intel was fined by the European Union in an anti-trust lawsuit this week.
- Tiangong-1 – Billed as China’s first space station (they have never participated in the ISS), the Tiangong-1 module was launched in 2011 and first boarded by three Chinese astronauts in June of 2012. The astronauts have since returned to Earth, but follow-up missions are planned leading to a full-time manned Chinese space station in orbit
- Chang’e 3 – This Chinese lunar lander-and-rover project is slated for launch in 2013, when it will become the first Chinese hardware to reach the Moon. Also it’s named after the Chinese moon goddess, which is pretty cool.
Compare to: the most expensive private family home in the U.S., located near Silicon Valley, is valued at $100 million.
- The Dragon – In May of 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to ever dock at the International Space Station. Previously only the governments of the U.S., Japan, Russia, and the European Space Agency had managed to launch manned vehicles to dock with the ISS.
- Falcon Rockets – This line of rockets currently being developed by SpaceX are already an integral part of the future plans of other agencies on this list, including NASA and Mars One. SpaceX looks as though it’s going to have a lot of customers in the future.
- “Red Dragon” Mars Mission – SpaceX has floated plans for a low-cost, privately-funded unmanned Mars mission, with the specific goal of using unique drilling technology to look for evidence of life in the ice and soil beneath the Martian surface. The “Red Dragon” mission would also pay special attention to analyzing possible hazards for later human Mars explorers. Though the project is still under evaluation by SpaceX and NASA, it has released a hoped-for launch date of 2018.
Planetary Resources has not yet conducted any launches, and the status of its technological research is not known. The company was founded in 2010 under the less eyebrow-raising name of Arkyd Astronautics, and only unveiled its true intent this past Spring.
- Asteroid mining – Planetary Resources is a U.S.-based startup founded by several American investors with the express commercial goal of eventually using robots to mine asteroids for industrial minerals.
- Satellites for sale – As long as they’re developing space technology, the founders of Planetary Resources figure they may as well develop a line of satellites-for-sale, which could be purchased by governments or private companies.
- Potentially Hazardous Objects – As part of its mining operations, Planetary Resources hopes to develop systems to alter the orbits of asteroids. Planetary resources has stated that this technology could be used to avert future asteroid collision extinction events for as long as Planetary Resources is operating.
- Human colony/reality show on Mars – In arguably the most brilliant proposal I’ve ever seen, the founders of Mars One believe they can raise the necessary funds for a small human colony on Mars by 2023–by making life on the Red Planet into a reality show.Mars One plans to contract SpaceX to deliver four human colonists on Mars in 2023.
This would be a one-way trip: Mars One plans for colonization, not exploration, so the idea is to build a permanent human population on Mars. Subsequent missions would deliver more settlers, four at a time, every few years.
How much will investors and cable companies pay to get the ratings that a Red Planet reality show would bring? Only time will tell.