International Space Spending
Despite current thrashing over the U.S. space program, the United States continues to lead the world in spending on civil space exploration. At rates of more than $18B per year, the expenditures dwarf its nearest competitors. Nonetheless, space continues to decline as a national investment priority, as measured by its share of the total government budget, and also by its share of Gross Domestic Product. Meanwhile, other countries are setting exploration at comparable – and even higher – priority.
First a little calibration for those unfamiliar with how much actually gets spent around the world. International tallies are not performed systematically every year, so the numbers at left are a little rough (if you can get your hands on a EuroConsult report, that’s a good start), but they give a fairly sound indication of the ranges of national annual spending (in billions of USD) over the years 2008-2011. Fluctuations of 10-30% within those years are not uncommon, with one of the largest being India, which increased its civil space spending from approximately $900M to $1.5B over the last several years.
While total dollars count for a lot, it is also instructive to look at how much of a country’s economy, or government budget, is invested; this gives some indication of space as a relative priority. By share of GDP, the U.S. lags behind Russia and the Ukraine, and leads our traditional partners of France, Japan, Germany and, by a much greater extent, Canada. India’s recent increase places it in the “top tier” of space-investing nations, highlighting that while small, the country takes space seriously as a component of its future economy.
India’s investment stands out even further when expressed as a share of its total government budget. As investment priorities go, and relative to its peers, India appears to be “off the fence” and fully committed. Other emergent players such as China and South Korea are also rising in the charts; China likely occupies an even higher slot as the most recent estimates of its very opaque space program are now three years old, and probably understated. Its recent construction wave of space-related infrastructure alone may be yet-to-be-tallied.
As the U.S. considers expanded global partnerships as a central tool in dealing with increased domestic discretionary budget pressure (or so we are told daily within NASA), it seems clear that it cannot afford to continue with an incoherent policy of engagement with emergent players in Eastern Europe and Asia indefinitely, particularly with respect to the key existing and emergent partners of Russia & Ukraine, Japan, India and China. Particularly for the latter three, alignment with one may strain relations with the others.
A final note is while the accumulated budgets of major partners are not insubstantial, the portions of those budgets devoted to human space flight are. The Japanese, Canadian and European portions lie between 10 and 20%, and seem to be declining. While India has ambitious plans, its HSF spending is still a tiny fraction (1%) of ISRO’s overall budget. NASA and ROSCOSMOS (the Russian space agency) are unique in spending significantly higher amounts on HSF (35-45%). The point being: international coalitions as a solution to the costs of Beyond Earth Orbit exploration plans will take more than good intentions and breathless enticement to bring to fruition. Not only would international space spending have to increase (bucking the current projections of flat spending), most participating countries would also have to significantly rebalance their investment portfolio priorities away from technology, launch and/or satellite activities, and towards HSF, in order to find meaningful funds to offset the costs of major human exploration campaigns. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is to lead such a charge, it will require extremely coherent, concrete, and credible exploration policies, architectures, and plans.