Is space a good investment?

Space is an expensive, and uncertain, environment to work in, and decisions to invest in space technology and missions are frequently questioned in the current global economic climate. Headline figures of tens of millions, or billions, do little to counter the accusations that there are more appropriate things to be investing in. Is the cost of investing in space worthwhile?

Image of East Devon, UK taken by Landsat 8 on 4th November 2013.  The River Exe flows from top to bottom and the River Teign from left to right. Plumes of suspended sediment are clearly visible following periods of heavy rainfall in late October and early November 2013.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Image of East Devon, UK taken by Landsat 8 on 4th November 2013.
The River Exe flows from top to bottom and the River Teign from left to right. Plumes of suspended sediment are clearly visible following periods of heavy rainfall in late October and early November 2013.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Last week the Landsat Advisory Group, a sub-committee of the US Government’s National Geospatial Advisory Committee, issued a report looking at the economic value of Landsat data to America. As Landsat data is freely available, quantifying the value of that data isn’t easy; and the Group approached it by considering the cost of providing alternative solutions for Landsat data.

They considered sixteen applications, linked to US Government departments, which use Landsat data. These ranged from flood mitigation, shoreline mapping and coastal change; through forestry management, waterfowl habitats and vineyard management; to mapping, wildfire assessment and global security support. The report estimated that these sixteen streams alone produced savings of between $350 million and $436 million to the US economy. The report concluded that the economic value of just one year of Landsat data far exceeds the multi-year total cost of building, launching, and managing Landsat satellites and sensors.

This conclusion was interesting given reports in 2014 that Landsat 8 cost around $850m to build and launch, a figure which will increase to almost $1 billion with running costs; and that NASA were estimating that Landsat 9 would cost in excess of the $650m budget they had been given. These figures are significantly in excess of the quantified figures in the Advisory Group report; however work undertaken by US Geological Survey in 2013 identified the economic benefit of Landsat data for the year 2011 is estimated to be $1.70 billion for US users, and $400 million for international users.

The discrepancy between the two figures is because the Advisory Group did not include private sector savings; nor the fact that Landsat data is also collected, and disseminated, by the European Space Agency; nor did it include unquantified societal benefits or contribution to scientific research. For example, it highlighted that humanitarian groups use Landsat imagery to monitor human rights violations at low cost and without risking staff entering dangerous, and often inaccessible, world regions.

Last week also demonstrated the uncertain side of space, with the discovery of the Beagle-2 spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The UK led probe mission was assumed to have crash landed on Christmas Day 2003, however recent images indicate it landed successfully but its solar panels did not unfurl successfully. The Beagle 2 discovery has obvious echoes with the recent shady site of the Philea comet landing, and demonstrates that space exploration is a risky business. Given the Beagle 2 mission cost £50 million and the Philea mission was estimated to cost around region of €1.4 billion, is the cost of investing in space worthwhile?

Consider satellite television, laptops, smoke detectors, tele-medicine, 3D graphics and satellite navigation – all of these developments came through the space industry, and so now think about the jobs and economic activity generated by these sectors. Working in space is expensive and challenging, but it’s precisely because of this that the space industry is innovative and experimental. The space sector works at the technological cutting edge, investment in space missions benefits and enhances our life on earth. So if anyone ever asks whether space is a good investment, tell them about the financial benefits of Landsat, the development of laptops, the number of lives saved by smoke detectors or the humanitarian support provided to Amnesty International.