3 Most Expensive Space Missions, Ranked

Space travel and exploration have been fascinating humans for centuries. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space.  His single orbit of the Earth only lasted about 1 hour and 45 minutes, but it certainly accelerated the ‘race to the moon’, which saw the Soviet Union and the United States working on sending the first manned aircraft to the moon. On July 16, 1969, NASA operated Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon, with 3 crew members aboard. American astronaut Buzz Aldrin became the first man to step on the moon. The Apollo program subsequently completed a total of 6 manned lunar missions, landing 12 astronauts on the moon’s surface between the years of 1969-1972.

Space exploration comes at a cost. While the new generation of space travel is being pioneered by Elon Musk and SpaceX, some of the founding missions and programs are the most expensive in history.

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3 Apollo Space Program: $109 Billion

The Apollo Space Program was operated by NASA between 1961 and 1972 and was responsible for landing the first manned spacecraft on the moon in 1969. The program was hugely successful overall, though there were some tragedies along the way. In 1967, a test launch with the Apollo 1 vessel ended disastrously, when a fire broke out in the spacecraft, and lead to the death of the 3 astronauts on board. In 1970, the Apollo 13 had a brush with disaster when a vital oxygen tank failed two days into the lunar mission. The crew was able to return safely to Earth with the direction of Mission Control. This incident has long been depicted in pop culture, most notably in the 1995 film, Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks. The program cost the equivalent of $109,000,000,000.

2 International Space Station (ISS): $160 Billion

The International Space Station is a station that has been orbiting in Lower Earth since 1998 and is the largest satellite and object in space. Over the past 22 years, it has orbited the Earth over 125,000 times. Five international space agencies collaborated on its creation, launch, and subsequent maintenance: NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and the CSA.

It can accommodate a crew of 7 astronauts at any given time and has been visited by hundreds of astronauts over the past two decades. The station was the second most expensive space-related project, with associated costs exceeding $160,000,000,000. Yearly maintenance, upkeep, and restocking of supplies add to these costs.

In 2019, American astronaut Christina Koch broke the record for the longest consecutive stay, by a woman, at the International Space Station. Her mission lasted a total of 328 days. Retired astronaut Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest stay at the ISS for a man, totally 340 days stationed.

1 Space Shuttle Program: $196 Billion

The space shuttle program was the fourth spacecraft program that NASA operated. Active in the post-Apollo years, the program ran from 1972-2011, though the initial 9 years of the program saw no flights, until 1981 when Columbia was launched. With 133 successful missions, the program also saw the tragedies of the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 2003 Columbia disaster. These two failed missions resulted in the deaths of 14 astronauts. These accidents devastated the world, and for several years following the Challenger explosion, there was less enthusiasm about space exploration. When the cause of the accident was revealed (O-Ring failure), changes were made to make sure that the same type of fate was not repeated.

The space shuttle was renowned for its impeccable design, and for being the only winged spacecraft that could successfully achieve take-off, orbit, and landing. While early design and forecasting estimated that the program would cost $43,000,000,000, the final costs reached $196,000,000,000. The space shuttle program was responsible for major advancements in space technology. It was tantamount to the installation of the ISS, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the installation of many satellites. Not to mention, the shuttle program allowed for advancements in science, technology, astronomy, and space physics.

No other program in NASA history has been as remarkable as this one; its four-decade-long history served to advance space exploration and research for the United States, and the rest of the world.

As we continue into the 21st Century, the race to get the man to Mars continues to be the biggest spatial focus. Many international space agencies are working towards this goal, which some think will happen before 2023. Mars One, a Dutch organization, has revealed its plans to get a manned settlement on Mars by 2023.

Sources: Science Focus, The Though Co., Science Museum, Mars One

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