If you’ve ever watched Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other futuristic sci-fi adventure, then you’ve likely been in awe of the impossibly advanced spaceships, warp drives, and giant space stations. But even the most advanced technologies of today and tomorrow, fictional or not, can trace their beginnings back to clunky, simple, absolutely ingenious, and extremely expensive projects. Just 100 years ago, we couldn’t even dream of flying, but from those humble beginnings we’ve sent people into space, walked on the moon, landed rovers on Mars, and literally have human beings living in orbit. Not only that, but we’ve peered into the far reaches of our universe to discover the secrets of its birth and unravel the mysteries of space and time.
Whether it’s our human curiosity, or just a way for countries to flaunt their power, space projects that make all of that possible comprise some of the most impressive and expensive undertakings ever faced by the human race. And with growing interest in Mars colonies, private space travel, asteroid mining, global communication, and that constant influence of human curiosity and competition, space projects are getting bigger and bigger in both scale and ambition.
To that end, the following is a list of ten of the most costly space projects ever. The list includes several projects which are not yet complete, but are sure to see completion in the near future. We’ve ruled out programs and projects which are not singular or one-off builds. So while there were many space station programs such as the Soviet Salyut and Almaz, and mission programs like the US Apollo which were highly costly over their lifetime (the Apollo program alone cost nearly $24 billion USD), they aren’t included because they comprise many separate projects linked together by name.
10. – The Mir: $5.4 Billion
The Mir began its life as a Soviet space station and later passed to the Russian Federal Space Agency. It operated for 15 years and accrued a price tag of $5.4 billion USD by the end of its life, which actually seems quite low for a space station given some of the price tags to follow. It also held the record for the heaviest and largest man made satellite until the International Space Station began its orbit in the late 90s. On top of participating in various joint operations and housing multiple astronauts from various countries, the Mir used and developed alongside the Soyuz spacecraft, now the sole type of transport used at the ISS.
9. – Galileo: $6.9 Billion
The Galileo system is the EU/European Space Agency’s entry in global positioning systems. Though it is not strictly a single body, it makes the list because it is a single project and the satellites work together as a single body. Only signed off on and started in 2010, it is expected to be fully operational, with 27 active satellites, by 2019. What sets the Galileo system apart from earlier positioning systems is the international involvement of many European countries. All in all this is expected to run around $6.9 billion, but will be useful since it will allow involved nations technological independence from the Chinese, American, and Russian systems.
8. – Spektr-R: $7 Billion
The Spektr-R, or RadioAstron, is an orbital telescope launched and run by the Russian Astro Space Centre in 2011. Best estimates place it at about $7 billion over the course of research, development, and maintenance. It operates in synch with radio telescopes on Earth to provide observation of both intergalactic and local bodies. Though its observations are certainly noteworthy, the most notable thing about the Spektr-R is its orbit, which has a maximum distance from Earth of about 390,000 km, or roughly 6,000 km farther out than the Moon.
7. – The James Webb: $8 Billion (2011 Revised Budget)
Our next entry is another orbital space telescope, but has not yet been launched. The James Webb is to be the next-generation Hubble telescope, with capabilities to view farther than any other tool, and in far higher resolution. Although the project was about to be scrapped after it reached $3 billion in the development stage, so many of its components had been commissioned and started that it was given a new budget of $8 billion, with some estimates predicting it may even reach $9 billion. Though the price tag is steep, the James Webb telescope is expected to orbit the earth at four times the distance of the moon, allowing high res photos of the formation of the first stars – an incalculable asset in the pursuit of understanding the origin of the universe.
6. – Skylab: $10 Billion
Skylab was launched in 1973 and served as the first permanent American space station, operating for about six years. Though it suffered damage on launch, it managed to be repaired with the first ever in-space repair, conducted by its crew. Developments on the Skylab project, like those on the Russian Mir project, eventually found their way through NASA onto the International Space Station, which carries designs from this original. By the end of its operation, Skylab had racked up a tab of $10 billion, almost twice that of the Mir.
5. – Hubble: $10 Billion (2010 Est.)
The Hubble telescope was launched in 1990 and has been in operation providing high resolution images ever since. The data collected by Hubble has led to many breakthroughs in astrophysics, from black holes and new galaxies, to dark matter, dark energy, and even images from close to the beginning of time. The Hubble has recently joined imaging data with the Spitzer deep-space telescope to identify and image the formation of galaxies from as far back as 13 billion years. All of these breakthroughs have racked up a development, launch, and maintenance bill of roughly $10 billion by 2010 estimates. The Hubble is expected to operate at least until the James Webb launches in 2018.
4. – GLONASS: $11-$13bn (2020 Est.)
GLONASS stands for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema… it’s the Russian GPS. GLONASS is a collection of 24 satellites working to provide a Russian alternative to GPS. Unlike Galileo, GLONASS is not looking to build on existing systems, but provide a separate infrastructure, thus the huge price increase. Originally, GLONASS covered only Russia, but has since extended to global coverage. Begun in 1976 as a military venture, the true cost of GLONASS, like many space projects, is in its upkeep and development, but the third generation has reduced the size and weight of the satellites while increasing their longevity. Despite all of this, it is still expected to cost upwards of $13 billion by 2020.
3/2 – BeiDou: $25 Billion
Like Galileo and GLONASS, the Chinese BeiDou system is another collection of artificial satellites with Earth receivers, but taken as a single unit, it is the third most-costly completed space venture in human history, or second. We’ve tied the BeiDou for second with GPS because while GPS may be more expensive at the moment, it’s several decades older and the BeiDou, which only came into being in 2000. What’s more, BeiDou is expected to grow much more in coming years than GPS, growing from a 10-satellite Chinese network to a 35-satellite global network by 2020.
2/3 – GPS: $22 Billion (2016 Est.)
Coming in at number 2 for the time being is GPS. Begun, like GLONASS, in the 70s as a military venture to overcome the shortcomings of conventional navigation methods, the original system had only 24 satellites, but as of 2012 it has expanded to 32 improved satellites which now cover the entire world, offering high precision and high-speed positioning. Given that it has undergone many improvements and refurbishments over some 4-5 decades, it is not surprising that the price for all of this navigation is estimated to reach $22 billion USD by 2016.
1. – The ISS: $157 Billion
The first component of this now $157 billion project was launched in 1998, a joint effort by the US and the Russian Federation, both of which dropped their individual plans for space stations – the USA’s being wonderfully American with its name “Freedom.” As a result, the station is split between two main sections, one Russian, the other American, with the latter being run and maintained internationally with the European, Canadian, and Japanese space agencies.
A runaway first on our list is the International Space Station, a collection of various modules combined to form one permanent, low-orbit habitat, the ninth such construction of its kind. Though its costs have been astronomical, the contributions of the ISS to scientific research are invaluable. A lot of debate has existed around what the point of the ISS is, but aside from imaging and research data of space conditions and galactic phenomena, it serves a practical use as a testing ground for many deep-space instruments.
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