The True Cost of Space Exploration

Apollo 15

One hundred years from now when our ancestors are enjoying a summer vacation to Mars, they are not going to remember the price paid for humanity’s journey into space. Science fiction frequently paints a glamorous, adventurous, and enlightening journey into space, but the mundane often goes unnoticed.

Recently the race to space claimed yet another victim in the pursuit to push beyond the boundaries of Earth. Virgin Galactic is funding research into making commercial space flights available to anyone with enough bitcoin to purchase a seat.

During its latest space flight, SpaceShipTwo disintegrated during flight 45,000 feet above the surface of Earth. Two pilots were on board testing out the latest in commercial space flight. One pilot, Peter Siebold, managed to parachute to safety. Pilot Michael Tyler Alsbury was not as lucky. He did not survive the accident.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Michael and all those involved with the tragedy.

While his death may barely register on the awareness of the general public, it should not be ignored. The loss of Michael underscores the sheer magnitude of the engineering efforts required for humanity to reach space and thrive there.

We are still on the cusp of a new age. The golden era of the space age is still ahead of us. While society is caught up in Earthly pursuits, many fail to recognize the monumental strides taking place.

Science and engineering are intertwined. They work hand in hand to drag us into the future. They make the science fiction of the past into today’s reality. Behind the scenes science and engineering don’t take place because of noble ideas; they take place because of funding. Yes, individuals might pursue science and engineering because of their passion for space exploration, but it takes money for them to realize those dreams.

The space age is beginning to flourish because it is becoming commercialized. Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson is not funding this research to lose money. He is an adventurer at heart, but the commercial prospect allows his fantasy to be worth pursuing in reality.

All great inventions in society have been pushed into reality because of commercial and monetary motivation. How many technologies and innovations will we never realize because there is no money in it?

Peter Siebold and Michael Tyler Alsbury
Peter Siebold and Michael Tyler Alsbury

The cost of humanity’s reaching space extends beyond dollars and bitcoins. The cost is highest in human life. The list of those who risked and ultimately lost their lives in the pursuit of this science fiction dream continues to grow.

A very few of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice are listed below.

  • Michael Tyler Alsbury October 2014 (SpaceShipTwo)
  • Rick D. Husband February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • William C. McCool February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • Michael P. Anderson February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • Ilan Ramon February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • Kalpana Chawla February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • David M. Brown February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • Laurel Blair Salton Clark February 2003 (Space Shuttle Columbia)
  • Michael J. Smith January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Francis R. Scobee January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Ronald McNair January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Ellison Onizuka January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Judith Resnik January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Greg Jarvis January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Christa McAuliffe January 1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger)
  • Vladimir Komarav April 1967 (Soyuz 1)
  • Georgi Dobrovolski June 1971 (Soyuz 11)
  • Viktor Patsayev June 1971 (Soyuz 11)
  • Vladislav Volkov June 1971 (Soyuz 11)
  • Michael J. Adams November 1967 (X-15)
  • Valentin Bondarenko March 1961 (Space Training)
  • Theodore Freeman October 1964 (Space Training)
  • Elliot See February 1966 (Space Training)
  • Charles Bassett February 1966 (Space Training)
  • Gus Grissom January 1967 (Apollo 1)
  • Edward White II January 1967 (Apollo 1)
  • Roger Chaffee January 1967 (Apollo 1)
  • Clifton Williams October 1967 (Space Training)
  • Robert Lawrence December 1967 (Space Training)
  • Yuri Gagarin March 1968 (Soyuz 3)
  • Sergei Vozovikov July 1993 (Space Training)
  • So many more non-astronaut fatalities


Do not think that Michael’s sacrifice in the sake of technology will be the last. It would be amazing if his was the last life lost. Regrettably there will be more.

Capturing the spirit and the drive of these brave souls that risk it all for advancement is a difficult proposition. Many science fiction authors have tried, and some have succeeded.

mars oneThe legendary SFWA Grand Master James Gunn told me he asked a group of astronauts at a convention many years ago if they would sign up for a one way journey to Mars when they knew they would never return. Without hesitation, each one proclaimed they would. They were each willing to risk their lives to walk on Mars.

Mars One is following up on that question James Gunn asked so many years ago. They are creating a human settlement on Mars. Their goal is to arrive there by 2023. They have requested people to sign up for the mission knowing that they may not survive. They received more than 100,000 applications.

Pushing beyond the boundaries of Earth requires great risk. It requires great adventurers and explorers who will never receive the fame and fortune bestowed upon mundane actors and athletes.

The true cost of space exploration cannot be measured in dollars. It must be measured in human lives. For those who paid the ultimate price, we thank you and salute you. Those who understand the importance of your sacrifice will not forget. Godspeed on your next adventure.

mars one

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