Space has always fascinated humans, which is why some of the most powerful nations on Earth financed expensive missions costing billions of dollars to unearth the mysteries hidden in the stars, supernovas, black holes, exoplanets and all other galactic objects.
The world has come a long way from 4 October 1957, when the Soviet Union became the first to launch an artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into space. Since then, mankind has placed the first human in space (Russia’s Yuri Gagarin), the first woman in space (Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova) and the first human on the Moon (US astronaut Neil Armstrong) among countless other feats in human history.
It is remarkable that in just about seven decades, the world is now aiming to set up a colony on Mars — a goal that is increasingly becoming more realistic with the progress in technology and shared scientific understanding among several countries. One day in the far future, interstellar travel might also become a reality and not just a Christopher Nolan movie.
Space missions can be described as voyages into outer space, undertaken by robotic spacecraft or human spaceflight. The purpose of a space mission can include everything from placing satellites in orbit to building a network of navigational systems, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) or Globalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS), to landing probes on the Moon.
There is indeed a great diversity in the purpose of space missions. These are carried out by both government and private space agencies. Among the world’s leading government space agencies are the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) of India. Among the foremost private spaceflight companies is Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The costliest space missions that have been undertaken so far
Space Shuttle programme
Cost: USD 199 billion
The most expensive of all space missions in history was the one that made space exploration one of the most personalised moments in human history — the Space Shuttle programme. Officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS), it was the fourth human spaceflight programme carried out by the US government and NASA. The space shuttle designed as part of the STS was the first reusable spacecraft to carry humans into orbit.
The programme officially began in 1972. The first space shuttle developed under the programme took flight on 12 April 1981. The STS came to an end on 21 July 2011 with the safe landing of the last space shuttle on Earth. Six space shuttles were developed throughout the duration of STS — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, Challenger, Columbia and Enterprise. Today, the first three are housed in US space museums. Challenger and Columbia were lost in accidents in 1986 and 2003, respectively, leading to the deaths of all of their astronauts numbering 14 in total. Enterprise, which was the first orbiter, never flew into space.
The space shuttle fleet flew 135 missions in total, helping, among other scientific advancements in space, build the International Space Station (ISS) and become a testimony of human perseverance. In the process, the astronauts who were part of the missions became icons and inspired generations of space enthusiasts to learn more about the world outside our Earth.
International Space Station
Date: 1984-2030 (estimated)
Cost: USD 160 billion
Organisations: NASA, ROSCOSMOS, JAXA, ESA, CSA
The ISS is the ninth crewed space station and one of the two currently in operation (the other being China’s Tiangong space station). It orbits around 400 km above the Earth.
Work on the ISS technically began in 1984 after US President Ronald Reagan gave his approval to construct a space station named Freedom. Until 1993, NASA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), European Space Agency (ESA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) — the respective space agencies of the US, Japan, Europe and Canada — worked on building the space station’s elements.
Political and economic complications resulted in the US and Russia joining hands. ROSCOSMOS entered the picture, and the programme was renamed ISS.
The actual assembly of the ISS was done in two phases, starting in 1995. Phase 1 was launched as part of what was dubbed the Shuttle-Mir programme. In this phase, which ended in 1998, 11 NASA Space Shuttles carried astronauts and cosmonauts to Russia’s Mir Orbital Station. Phase 2 was launched in 1998.
The construction of the ISS was completed in 2000, from which point it has been continuously occupied. The ISS is 109 metres in length, end-to-end. Its living and working space is larger than a six-bedroom house. It has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree view bay window. Over 200 astronauts and cosmonauts from 20 different countries have visited the ISS, where they have regularly conducted spacewalks for its expansion, maintenance and upgrades.
In January 2022, NASA announced that the ISS will end operations in 2030. It will then plunge into the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, it has been reported that Russia may end cooperation with others after 2024 because of Western sanctions on the country following Moscow’s war on Ukraine.
Date: 2014-2025 (will extend beyond 2030)
Cost: USD 93 billion
Organisations: 31 countries (the US, the UK, Japan, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, India and others) led by NASA
Former US President Donald Trump gave the push for a new mission to the Moon by signing the Space Policy Directive 1 in December 2017. Thus was born the Artemis programme.
Artemis is the first crewed Moon mission since the end of the Apollo programme, which is why it is one of the most eagerly anticipated of all space plans that are underway. Its crewed spacecraft is called Orion, and it will be launched by the 98-metre-tall Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Artemis 1, an uncrewed mission for testing purposes, was successfully launched in November 2022.
The first four astronauts are expected to be carried to space for a flyby around the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis II mission. This is to be followed by Artemis III in 2025, which will place the first astronauts on the surface of the Moon since 1972. The astronauts, who will be wearing suits designed by luxury fashion house Prada, of the Artemis III mission will include the first woman and first person of colour on the lunar surface.
The main objective of the Artemis programme, according to NASA, is to “establish the first long-term presence on the Moon.”
“We will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars,” NASA says on its official site.
As part of the plan, an Artemis Base Camp will be built on the lunar surface.
“These elements will allow our robots and astronauts to explore more and conduct more science than ever before,” says NASA.
NASA has also partnered with private space agencies for the Artemis programme. SpaceX will develop the Human Landing System (HLS) to take cargo and humans from a planned “Gateway” to the Moon’s surface. Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 missions.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will provide an HLS for Artemis 5.
In November 2021, NASA’s Office of Inspector General, Office of Audits revealed that “when aggregating all relevant costs across mission directorates, NASA is projected to spend USD 93 billion on the Artemis effort up to FY 2025.” But if all goes as planned, more missions will be conducted that will take the programme beyond 2030. This means that the overall cost of the mission from its beginning to its end can be far higher than USD 93 billion and trump the cost incurred on the Apollo mission, which is still the costliest completed Moon mission.
Cost: USD 25 billion
“That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong when he became the first human to walk on the Moon on 20 July 1969. He was part of the Apollo 11 mission, which was one of the 11 crewed missions, including six lunar landing missions, of Project Apollo, or the Apollo programme. Apollo 11 was the first mission in the programme to land on the Moon.
Including Armstrong, the Apollo programme saw 12 astronauts walk on the lunar surface till the last mission in 1972. They conducted scientific research on the lunar surface and collected moon rocks, which were brought back to Earth.
The programme began in 1961 with the test of the Saturn I rocket. A milestone was reached with the first flight of the Saturn V rocket in November 1967 as part of the Apollo 4 mission.
An accident during a pre-launch test of the mission designated AS-204 in January 1967 led to the deaths of three astronauts: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. In their memory, AS-204 was later re-designated Apollo 1. The first crewed Apollo mission to get to space was Apollo 7 in October 1968.
At USD 25 billion, whose inflation-adjusted cost comes to around USD 257 billion as of 2020, the Apollo programme is the most expensive space mission centred on the Moon.
Hubble Space Telescope
Duration: 1990- through 2030s
Cost: USD 16 billion
Organisation: NASA and ESA
Perhaps no other spacecraft has succeeded in generating among millions of people as much curiosity for the universe as the Hubble Space Telescope.
Orbiting 525 km above Earth at a speed of 27,000 km/h, the observational telescope has taken some of the most beautiful and very high-resolution photographs of stars, galaxies, nebulas and other cosmic objects, including the iconic Pillars of Creation — a photograph of stars forming in the Eagle Nebula that looks like a galactic hand.
Named after astronomer Edwin Hubble, the space telescope was originally conceived in the 1940s. It took decades to develop and was initially called the Large Space Telescope before it was renamed after Hubble in 1983. On 24 April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit by the Discovery space shuttle and deployed a day later.
Hubble has since made over 1.5 million observations. Discoveries done by it have led to the publication of more than 20,000 peer-reviewed science papers. Its discoveries include the moons around Pluto as well as a galactic phenomenon more than 13.4 billion light-years from Earth, which means that it has looked into the universe’s distant past. There is no astronomy textbook that does not have contributions from Hubble.
It had a lifespan of 15 years at the time of its launch, but modifications and improvements done to it over the decades have ensured its continuous operation to date. In fact, it is expected that the Hubble space telescope will remain in operation until the mid to late 2030s.
James Webb Space Telescope
Duration: 2021-2026 or 2031
Cost: USD 10 billion
Organisations: NASA, ESA, CSA
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the largest and most powerful space telescope to date. Like the Hubble Space Telescope, it is one of NASA’s Great Observatories — massive space instruments designed to peek into the farthest corners of the universe.
The space telescope was launched on 25 December 2021 onboard Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket. It is an infrared space observatory, which means that it can see the light of stars and planets through the dust in our universe.
Among its several objectives is to see what the universe was like about 200 million years after the Big Bang. It will also hunt for signs of life on other planets and study the atmosphere of exoplanets. In July 2022, NASA released the first picture of the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe, which was taken by JWST.
The first image from the Webb Space Telescope represents a historic moment for science and technology. For astronomy and space exploration.
And for America and all humanity. pic.twitter.com/cI2UUQcQXj
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 11, 2022
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST does not orbit the Earth. It is orbiting the Sun, around 1.5 million km away, in its permanent home Lagrange point 2 (L2). It is a gravitationally stable location, which is also the home of several other space telescopes, including the ESA’s Herschel Space Telescope and the Planck Space Observatory, both of which were operational from 2009 to 2013.
The JWST is expected to operate sometime between 2026 and 2031.
(Main image: JSC/NASA; Featured image: Neil Armstrong/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
– What was the most expensive space mission?
The most expensive space mission to date has been the Space Shuttle programme.
– What are the most expensive failed space missions?
According to some estimates, the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 can be called the most expensive space mission loss, which was around USD 13 billion. Among others are the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and a Soviet rocket disaster in 1973.
– What is the most expensive moon mission?
The most expensive moon mission to date is the Apollo programme. It cost USD 25 billion by the time it ended in 1972. But the ongoing Artemis moon mission is likely to top it by 2025.