Life in the Universe

Living in Space

What is the value of the International Space Station?

Critics of the ISS have long argued that the project is, to varying degrees and in various ways, an expensive boondoggle with little bang for the buck. Any scientific return of ISS could be achieved much more cheaply, they argue. Further complaints have been brought to bear against the involvement and administration of so many international partners; critics claim that this has led to waste and inefficiency. They also cite that the danger and great cost of supporting human life in low-Earth orbit has drained resources away from many other worthy space-based projects.

While these arguments may have substantial merit, another way to look at ISS is not purely through an economic lens, but rather from a more holistic, sociological perspective. No space program in history has ever been inexpensive, and all of them have had their share of embarrassments, failures, and tragedies. Even so, human spaceflight and space exploration has led the way for us as a species to reach beyond the limits imposed upon us by Earth’s natural boundaries. In some ways, ISS is almost a victim of its own success. Humans have been living on ISS continuously for so long now that space travel from Earth to the station seems routine and commonplace; it fails to capture the excitement and interest of taxpayers and lawmakers. Today, the U.S. government spends about two billion dollars per year on ISS. That is a lot of money, but it turns out to be less than two cents per day per American citizen. The stimulus of ISS to our creativity, imagination, and desire to learn and grow may, ultimately, be well worth this price.


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