Space travel is certainly not cheap. The mega-projects of space exploration today are so expensive that very few countries can afford to undertake such monumental endeavors alone. Even after huge money is plugged into a mission or a research project, space endeavors are typically high-risk and not guaranteed to produce any direct results.
Perhaps one of the most expensive space programs to never take off was NASA’s Constellation program. The goal of the Constellation program was to colonize the moon and eventually send manned spacecraft to Mars. When former President George W. Bush set forth his policy on space exploration in 2004, NASA estimated that the Constellation program would cost as much as $230 billion through 2025. The program has since effectively been cancelled by President Obama. Instead, Obama implemented a new NASA policy, which aims to have a manned asteroid mission completed by 2025 and an orbital Mars mission by the mid-2030s. His policy also focused on developing commercially operated launch vehicles to send United States astronauts into space, rather than relying on government operated space shuttles.
All this will likely set the U.S. government back a pretty penny, but just how expensive can these missions get? The following fifteen most expensive space missions of all time will give space enthusiasts a good idea of just what a huge project space exploration is.
15. Gaia space observatory, estimated cost: $1 billion
Including the building, ground operations and launch, the Gaia space observatory mission has a price tag of about $1 billion. Its $1 billion cost is 16% higher than its initial budget, and the project was completed two years after it was expected to be. The goal of the Gaia mission, which is helmed by the European Space Agency, is to create a 3D map of about 1 billion stars and other space objects constituting about 1% of the Milky Way galaxy. The Gaia space observatory launched into orbit late last year thanks to the Russian rocket the Soyuz ST-B.
14. Juno spacecraft, estimated cost: $1.1 billion
Juno was originally going to cost $700 million, but as of June 2011 the projected cost of the project over its lifespan would be $1.1 billion. It was launched in August 2011 and it’s expected to reach Jupiter by October 18, 2016. The spacecraft will be put into Jupiter’s orbit so it can study the composition, gravity field and magnetic field of the planet.
The mission will finish sometime in 2017 after Juno orbits around Jupiter 33 times. Juno has some strange cargo: it’s carrying three LEGO minifigures modeled after Galileo, the Roman god Jupiter, and Jupiter’s wife Juno. The figures are made of aluminum – because plastic wouldn’t withstand the cold temperatures of space.
13. Herschel Space Observatory, estimated cost: $1.3 billion
Operated from 2009 to 2013, the Herschel Space Observatory was built by the European Space agency, and it was the largest infrared telescope ever launched. In 2010 the cost of the project was $1.3 billion. This figure includes spacecraft launch expenses and scientific expenses. In May 2009 the Observatory reached orbit and operated until April 29, 2013 when it ran out of coolant. It was originally expected to stay operational only until the end of 2012. NASA assisted with the program by providing mission-enabling instrument technology. The telescope’s namesake, Sir William Herschel, discovered the planet Uranus.
12. Galileo spacecraft, estimated cost: $1.4 billion
Carried by Space Shuttle Atlantis, the Galileo spacecraft launched on October 18, 1989. The unmanned spacecraft arrived at Jupiter on December 7, 1995. The goal of the Galileo mission was to study the planet Jupiter and the surrounding moons. Explore the areas in and around the largest planet in our solar system wasn’t cheap: The entire mission cost an estimated $1.4 billion.
By the early 2000s, intense radiation from Jupiter was damaging Galileo and the spacecraft’s fuel supply was dwindling, so it was ordered to crash into Jupiter to prevent contaminating the planet’s moons with bacteria.
11. Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, estimated cost: $2 billion
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is one of the most expensive pieces of equipment on board the International Space Station. Also known as the AMS-02, the device measures antimatter found in cosmic rays in an effort to prove the existence of dark matter. The AMS Program was originally only supposed to cost $33 million, but costs ballooned to a staggering $2 billion following a number of complications and technical problems. The International Space Station received ASM-02 in May of 2011, and now the instrument measures and records 1,000 cosmic rays per second. By 2012, 18 billion cosmic rays had been recorded.
10. Curiosity Mars Rover, estimated cost: $2.5 billion
Mars Science Laboratory, the NASA space probe mission that was responsible for landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars, has cost an estimated $2.5 billion so far. The Curiosity rover has proven to be quite successful since landing on the Mars Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.
Earlier this year, the rover passed a full Martian year on the surface of Mars, which is equal to 687 Earth days. The goals of the Mars Science Laboratory include determining if Mars is habitable, and studying the planet’s climate and geological features. The program was initially supposed to cost $650 million, but it went significantly over its original budget.
9. Cassini–Huygens, estimated cost: $3.26 billion
The Cassini–Huygens’ mission is to explore far into our solar system and primarily conduct research about the planet Saturn. This robotic spacecraft launched in 1997 and arrived in the Saturn system in 2004. The spacecraft includes not only a Saturn orbiter, but an atmospheric lander. The atmospheric lander has touched down on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. The cost to explore and research the second largest planet in our solar system has not been cheap, with the total cost of the mission estimated at $3.26 billion which is divided among NASA, The European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.
8. Mir space station, estimated cost: $4.2 billion
The Mir space station was operational from 1986 until 2001 when it was deorbited and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. In 2001, Yuri Koptev – the director of the Russian Federal Space Agency at the time – estimated the cost of the Mir space station project to be $4.2 billion over its lifetime. Mir holds the record for the longest continuous space flight; cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days and 18 hours on board of the space station. Mir acted as a microgravity research laboratory, and numerous experiments were conducted on the space station during its orbit. Fields of study on the space station included physics, biology, meteorology and astronomy.
7. GLONASS, estimated cost: $4.7 billion
Just like the United States and soon the European Union, Russia has a global positioning system of its own. It is estimated that $4.7 billion was spent on the program from 2001 to 2011. $10 billion has been allocated for GLONASS for 2012 to 2020. The commercial uses for this Russian global positioning system have been few and far between, and GLONASS has so far failed to be as widely used as American GPS – although Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the project one of his top priorities.
GLONASS currently consists of 24 satellites. Development of the project began in the Soviet Union in 1976 and was completed in 1995.
6. Galileo satellite navigation system, estimated cost: $6.3 billion
The Galileo satellite navigation system is Europe’s answer to GPS – and just like GPS, it wasn’t cheap to set up. It is estimated to have cost around $6.3 billion. The Galileo satellite navigation system acts as a safety net in case the American GPS is disabled. The system is still in its infancy: Launch and full use of all 30 satellites that will be part of the Galileo system will not be finished until 2019.
Earlier this year, two of the satellites meant for the system were put into the wrong orbit; even if they’re still usable in their current orbit, they will not be able to be used to their full potential.
5. James Webb Space Telescope, estimated cost: $8.8 billion
The James Webb Space Telescope has been in the planning stages since 1996; it has a tentative launch date of October 2018. The main contributors to this space observatory are NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. As of 2013, the estimated cost of the space telescope, which is named after former NASA administrator James E. Webb, is approximately $8.8 billion.
The project has had many budget problems and was at risk of cancellation in 2011. At the time, $3 billion had already been spent, but US congress later changed its plans and decided to cap the cost contributed by the United States to $8 billion.
4. Global Positioning System, estimated cost: $12 billion
The Global Positioning system (GPS) is a group of 24 satellites that allow anyone to pinpoint their location anywhere in the world. The initial cost to send the satellites used for GPS into space is estimated to be about $12 billion, but the annual operating costs for GPS comes to a total of about $750 million.
As we all now know, thanks to Sat Navs and Google Maps, the system allows anyone with a GPS receiver to use the system and it has proven to be extremely useful not only for military applications, but for our everyday navigational needs. A new series of GPS satellites were expected to launch into orbit this year, but the project has reportedly been delayed.
3. Project Apollo Space Program, $25.4 billion
The Project Apollo Space Program was not only one of the most historic in all of Space exploration, but also one of the most expensive. When all was said and done, the final cost reported to United States Congress in 1973 was $25.4 billion. NASA held a symposium in 2009 that showed the cost of Project Apollo would be $170 billion if adjusted for inflation in 2005 dollars.
President Kennedy was instrumental in shaping the Apollo Program, famously pledging to put a man on the moon. His goal was achieved in 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Initially, the $25 billion plus program was expected to cost only $7 billion.
2. International Space Station, estimated cost: $160 billion
The International Space Station is not only the single most expensive piece of space equipment ever built, but it is perhaps the most expensive thing ever built. As of 2010, the cost to build the International Space Station was a staggering $160 billion, and that number continues to grow as more and more additions are made to this satellite.
From 1985 to 2015, NASA contributed about $59 billion to the project. Russia has contributed around $12 billion, and the European Space Agency and Japan have contributed about $5 billion each. The space shuttle flights required to build the International Space station alone cost about $1.4 billion each.
1. NASA Space Shuttle Program, total cost approximately $196 billion
Formed in 1972, the Space Shuttle program included 135 missions in which six Space Shuttle orbiters or “reusable space planes” were used. Two of these orbiters, Columbia and Challenger, exploded causing a total of 14 astronaut deaths.
The final space shuttle launch occurred on July 8, 2001 when Atlantis was sent into space, and it landed on July 21, 2011. During the program’s lifecycle huge costs were accumulated. The final cost of the program is believed to have been at around $196 billion when it ended in 2011. When it was first conceived, NASA expected the program to cost only $7.45 billion, or $43 billion when adjusted for inflation in 2011.