151217 Space exploration
  • The space race. If I understand this week’s news correctly, a British astronaut has rocketed off to fight in some star wars. Which is as good an excuse as any to look at what different countries spend on their space programmes. The above chart shows the top 11 budgets in 2013, expressed in US dollars. The “PPP” bit stands for “purchasing power parities”, which simply means that the numbers have been adjusted to account for the different price levels in each country.
  • American exceptionalism. There are many different ways of measuring space budgets. Do you focus on the state-funded exploration programmes? Do you include the private sector research? And what about all the secret defence stuff? The OECD, whose figures I’ve used, explain their methodology on page 42 of this document. But, whichever figures you use, one country almost always comes out on top: the United States of America. Their spending in 2013 was larger than every other countries’ combined. I spoke of American exceptionalism in my To The Point post on defence spending. It’s true of space spending too.
  • But other countries are catching up. Other parts of my defence post can be reheated for this one. America may easily top the chart for space spending, but, thanks to the demands of fiscal consolidation, its lead is being reduced. It’s cutting budgets, whereas other countries aren’t. As the report puts it, “an increasing part of global space activities takes place outside of the OECD, particularly in Brazil, the Russian Federation, India and China.” There are developing space economies, just as there are developing economies.
  • The British budget. And what about the United Kingdom? That’s why the chart shows the top 11 countries, rather than the usual top ten, because we’re the ones in eleventh place. By the OECD’s reckoning, our space budget was around $339 million in 2013; which includes what we gave to the European Space Agency, to which we were the fourth biggest contributor after Germany, France and Italy. This isn’t a lot by the standards of the top ten – a fact much lamented by teevee’s Professor Brian Cox, among others – but George Osborne has generally tried to make it count for more.
  • More, please. Austerity won’t last forever, in America, in Britain or elsewhere, and space budgets will likely be increased in time. In fact, EuroConsult, authors of ridiculously expensive reports on the subject, reckon that state spending on space will rise by an average of 2.1 per cent over the next decade, reaching, by their measure, $81.4 billion in 2024. I’m one of those armchair astronauts who is happy to hear this, but still wants more. After all, the benefits of space exploration are certainly felt on earth.