Space programs: science, vanity and national pride

Did you know that Nigeria has a space program? As part of the seven nation Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) Nigeria launched a low Earth orbit (LEO) Earth Observation Satellite, Nigeriasat-1, in 2003 and will launch Nigeriasat-2, later this year. India meanwhile has a well developed space program, with dedicated national missions such as the IRS series and contributions to international satellite missions.

Critics argue that space programs, including Earth Observation satellites, are vanity projects that can be ill aforded by nations where large populations live in poverty, without access to clean water and sanitation. Politics and controversy in space science is nothing new. The race to the moon is acknowledged to have been motivated more by geo-politics than science. The cost in 2010 dollars has been estimated at $150 billion. Regarding modern science, I personally believe the International Space Station to be the most expensive folly ever built.  A search for ‘International Space Station’ on the ISI Web of knowledge, a database of scientific articles, results in 1874 hits: ‘ERS-1’, a European EO satellite which cost less than 1/100th of the cost of the ISS program results in 1589 hits (although the comparison is imperfect). I am not alone in my scepticism regarding the ISS.

Aid donors are beginning to question the priorities of some aid recipients. The argument for programs such as Nigeria’s is that whilst providing a dedicated, independent, (disaster) monitoring capability, such programs boost education and science at all levels. Boosting national pride is not a hollow achievement either. Economists know that events such as sporting success result in higher productivity and spending, so why shouldn’t a major event such as the launch of a space program or satellite?

Space programs will always be dictated by politics. For example, the Esrange facility in Kiruna was omitted from a review of Swedish space activities on instructions from the government: it was considered ‘untouchable’ (despite the high cost of maintaining the facility and the suspicion that the returns are not proportional). The costs of space assets are high and in a democracy this means that the elected representatives of the people are responsible for setting priorities and monitoring performance. Unfortunately, hubris is common among politicians and program scientists, sometimes resulting in inflated expectations. The Space Shuttle is a prime example; it never lived up to it’s billing (other than as a symbol). Given the costs corruption and self- or local-interest (pork barrel politics) loom large. Nevertheless, debate is important and national spending priorities are a subject for the nation and it’s representatives.  Of course this means that donor nations can question the needs of recipients who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on space programs, in terms of the donor nation’s own priorities.

Sadly though I find the debate at best tepid. Science reporting services a small minority of the public. National priorities are more often dominated by special interest groups. Politicians keep an eye on how a program will play with the public: visual impact is important. This means that today, in a time of constrained budgets, no real debate on space policy is underway. It is far easier to defer decisions to a third party such as the European Space Agency. Yet the sums are large: Sweden will contribute 60 M € in 2011 and the UK 265 M€! Earth observation accounts for 21% of ESA spending, human spaceflight 10%. The former helps us understand our planet, measure climate change, monitor pollution, disasters and risks. The latter provides benefits in materials science, astronomy and exploration. By comparison the European Spallation Source in Lund will cost €1.5 Billion to build and €100 M a year to run.

My conclusion is that EO programs are relatively cheap, scientifically productive, and, (in Euro-speak), provide benefits for citizens. Nigeriasat-1 (hopefully) introduced a new paradigm in Nigerian education, science and technology. The DMC is an innovative way to share costs and risks whilst boosting capabilities. The debate that emerged in Nigeria regarding the national space program perhaps reflects aspects of national politics that might not apply in most European nations, but in some ways that debate seems a more mature response than the eerie silence in much of Europe and North America.


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