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Article

The Cost of Space Travel

I am named after the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. This is usually my go-to “fun fact about myself” I have tucked away for the first week of uni classes; a simple and easy answer to most ice-breaker questions.

Originally published in Edition 2 (2022) of Farrago. 

 

I am named after the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. This is usually my go-to “fun fact about myself” I have tucked away for the first week of uni classes; a simple and easy answer to most ice-breaker questions. 

Growing up, it was always in my nature to look up to astronauts, cosmonauts, and all the little maths geniuses behind them, and to be inspired by their daring and fearless determination. Although I once screamed so loudly on a rollercoaster that the operator shut it down mid-ride, the idea of hurtling through space at the speed of light has always sparked my interest. In my eyes, space travel has always been the ultimate display of both human perseverance and scientific achievement. 

In fact, the idealist in me still has a childlike love for space exploration. For one, the technologies invented as a result of space exploration help us all, from telecommunications to weather forecasts, and even to memory foam. As someone who is always getting lost, I have constant gratitude for the satellite technology that allows me to ‘google maps’ my way to where I need to go. Additionally, the further we push into space and travel beyond the solar system, the better we understand our own role in the universe and make giant breakthroughs in the scientific world. 

To the naive and innocent, space exploration is nothing short of incredible. To gaze up in awe as the International Space Station whizzes past my house. To engross myself in the discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere. To be continually mesmerised by the technology that enabled the first photograph of a black hole. Space exploration leaves me breathless. 

Well, at least that is how I used to feel. 

On July 20, 2021, Blue Origin blasted its first four crew members, including founder Jeff Bezos, into space. They orbited the Earth for 10 minutes before descending back to our small blue planet and cracking open a bottle of champagne. Privately owned spaceflight companies, like Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have completely revolutionised the field of space exploration. 

Privatised space travel represents a shift. Space travel is becoming less about advancing civilisation and more about advancing individualist opportunities. While they once carried with them the hopes and dreams of entire nations, these rockets now are launched with nothing but the greed and self-interests of billionaires. Instead of focusing on the giant leaps for mankind, space travel has shifted to the individual small steps of a man. It has taken billionaires shoving their phallic-shaped rockets into the sky for me to realise the true cost of space exploration.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law of motion is commonly used by physicists to ensure the successful launching of rockets, however, this third law also applies to the financial cost of space programs. For every dollar spent on space travel, there is an equal and opposite amount not spent on more dire sectors of society. The James Webb telescope, launched in 2021, cost over USD 10 billion. Furthermore, in 2021 NASA received around 23 billion each year from the United States’ federal budget. Now while this may only account for 0.5% of the overall budget, even just a fraction of that $23 billion could make a huge impact in a country where 14.3 million households are experiencing food insecurity. Of course, this issue is only exacerbated by the billionaire space race. The fact these people have an exorbitant amount of money to enable them 10 minutes in space, whilst others cannot afford to put food on their plates is sickening. 

But this is not even the first time the moral ambiguity of space travel is being called into question. At the time of the 60’s Space Race, many civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, constantly called out the hypocrisy of dedicating all this money into sending astronauts to a dry and barren moon whilst millions of African Americans lived in poverty. Surely, there is a more efficient and benevolent way to spend this money. 

The cost of space travel extends beyond financial costs. Instead, much like a binary star system, the financial cost of space programs is gravitationally bound to another cost: the environmental cost. As we push further into the climate crisis, nearing a point of no return, instead of pouring all our efforts into salvaging the environment, we are pouring wealth, effort and resources into rockets that omit 300 tons of carbon dioxide into our upper atmosphere after each launch. This is 300 tons of carbon dioxide directly injected into the stratosphere, which is where the sacred ozone layer is found. And once you consider the growing market of ‘space tourism’ and the exponential growth in the number of rockets launched, space travel becomes just another factor contributing to those rising global temperatures. 

The more I think about space exploration, a growing guilt slowly sucks up all my optimism like a black hole. Upon returning to the earth, astronauts often claim to have stumbled upon a new perspective on life. Emphasising the fragility and vulnerability of a small rocky planet we call home, they often express the revelation that all our grievances, no matter how big they seem to us, are all ultimately contained within the five layers of our atmosphere. However, while this perspective may be helpful for the overthinkers, for others it is not. So, while Jeff Bezos can seek clarity 100 kilometres up in the sky, the millions of workers who endure terrible working conditions in minimum wage jobs will have to continue struggling to keep their heads above water. 

What is the point in focusing all our attention on our far away galactic neighbours like Andromeda when our neighbours here on Earth need our dire help? Although our problems may be insignificant in the broad picture of the universe, these issues are what people must deal with every day. These issues are the centre of our universe, not some galaxy that is 2.537 million light-years away. 

When people ask me how my parents decided on my name, I feel honoured to be able to explain that I am named after the first woman in space. I, of all people, understand the importance of scientific ventures and space endeavours. Space travel is designed to motivate and galvanise us, yet in its current state, driven by billionaires, it leaves me uninspired and indifferent at best, and fed-up and infuriated at worst. While space travel has undeniable benefits, there are also indisputable negative financial, environmental, and social impacts. Unfortunately, it seems that a part of growing up is ultimately recognising that, yes, there is a cost to everything. 

Even space travel. 

 
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