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While India spends far less on space than many other space powers, its spending is considerable given the nation’s other needs. (credit: ISRO)

Public interest in space, by the numbers


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The media coverage of the recent World Cup has again led to commentators asking why soccer is far and away the number one sport in the world, but not in America. Often, this question leads into a rant about the wrong-headedness of either America or the world in other matters, or the relative merits of various sports. It probably is true that soccer is number one in the world as a whole, and it is definitely not in the US. But, to do an apples-to-apples comparison, how does America compare to other nations, as opposed to the planet as a whole, on soccer enthusiasm?

Direct measurement of space popularity is even more challenging than soccer popularity.

Soccer popularity by nation is a challenging question; popularity is hard to define, (Participants? People who watch from the stands? On TV?), and good comparative numbers do not seem to exist. National sport popularity is so contentious that a Wikipedia page that attempted to list sport popularity by country has been repeatedly deleted and reinstated. Of the other sources that attempt rank sport popularity by country, most are battlefields for flame wars, or make claims that are impossible to believe (One out of every six people, including infants, toddlers and the aged, play volleyball, on a regular basis?), although some of it could be considered educational. (Who knew that Kilikiti was big in Tuvalu?)

International aspects of space are also in the news, with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s interview on Al Jazeera (see “The real message of a controversial statement”, The Space Review, July 19, 2010), and the White House release of space policy that again highlights international cooperation, both as an instrument for international relations, as well as a necessity for funding future space activities (see “Parsing the policy”, The Space Review, August 2, 2010). This raises the question, how popular is space around the world?

Direct measurement of space popularity is even more challenging than soccer popularity. The spending on space by various national governments could be a proxy for popularity. There are two reasons to adopt this measure. First, at least for the world’s democracies, politicians have to take the popularity of various government efforts into account when spending money, or risk being voted out of office. Authoritarian governments face a different calculus, of course. If a government can get away with criminalizing unrelated men and women holding hands in public, or so restrict access to food that the average citizen’s height is affected, well, it’s probably best to leave places like Iran and North Korea out of this analysis.

The second (and perhaps most important) reason for using government spend on space as a measure of popularity is that someone else has done the heavy lifting of assembling credible comparative data. Euroconsult has released figures for governmental spending on space, combining military and civilian programs for 2009, for the world.

Using these numbers, it looks like Japan’s commitment to space is more than thirty times as great as India’s, and the American commitment is more than six times greater than the Japanese commitment.

At first glance, this can be read as an argument for American Exceptionalism from just two data points: US governmental spending on space of almost $49 billion versus total world governmental spending of $68 billion. America was thus responsible for about 72% of the worldwide governmental space spending. ESA nations, including national programs as well as ESA contributions, came in at $7.8 billion, for 11.5% of the total. And Russia was at $2.7 billion, just behind Japan.

National space spending by GDP and per capita

Although interesting, this doesn’t get to popularity, as different countries have different levels of resources they can spend on anything, including spaceflight. Using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of available national resources, American space spending was about 0.34% of its $14.3 trillion GDP (which represents about 25% of the world’s total $58 trillion GDP). Other national spending on space compared to GDP includes Russia at 0.23%, India at 0.07%, Japan at 0.06%, and China at 0.04%. Looking at these numbers, one could perhaps infer that the popularity of space in America led to a commitment to space that is 50% greater than Russia’s, and five times as great as India’s, and that India and Japan have roughly equivalent commitments and popularity for space.

Along with differing GDPs, nations also have differing populations, with the combination of China and India alone having about 37% of the world in their borders, while the US has 5%. Calculating government spending per capita on space puts the US at $158, Japan at $24, Russia at $20, China at $1.50, and India at $0.75. The spending of ESA nations present a greater challenge to make comparable to the world, given factors such as the composition of the ESA and the EU are not the same, and the nation where ESA funding comes from and where the money gets spent are not identical. But for ESA members, looking at their contributions to ESA as well as non-ESA space spending, some numbers per capita are $35 for France, $18 for Italy, $14 for Germany, $15 for Sweden, with the English at $6. Using these numbers, it looks like Japan’s commitment to space is more than thirty times as great as India’s, and the American commitment is more than six times greater than the Japanese commitment.

India beyond the numbers

However, either of these measures, by GDP or per capita, miss the issue that comes up in many debates about space spending, that of other competing national needs. As an example, the World Health Organization estimates that 665 million Indians currently defecate in the open (they have no access to toilets). That’s more than twice the entire US population without access to a toilet. Even in the grip of the Cold War, would America have joined the Soviets in a space race without pervasive indoor plumbing, to say nothing of just toilet access?

The Indian commitment to space, as evidenced by the people continuing to elect governments that spend the amount of available resources on space in the face of other needs, is spectacular and unmatched in the world.

There are other non-numeric indicators of the popularity of space in India. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, an aerospace engineer widely known as the “Missile Man of India”, was able to use that as a springboard to become president of India, a largely ceremonial position; could any former NASA administrator even have contemplated becoming President—or any other major elected office—based on their space agency experience? And, at the recent International Space Development Conference in Chicago, more students from India were in attendance to present space settlement designs than any other country, including the US.

To return to the numbers, if GDP is adjusted by subtracting out $2.75 a day per person, as a proxy for basic living needs, India’s space spending is world-leading at 1.85% of this adjusted GDP. The US is now at 0.35%, Russia at 0.26%, and China and Japan both come in at 0.06%. And, for the quarter of India’s population (a number roughly equivalent to the US population) that lives below the world poverty standard of $1 a day, $2.75 would be a spectacular boon.

The Indian commitment to space, as evidenced by the people continuing to elect governments that spend the amount of available resources on space in the face of other needs, is spectacular and unmatched in the world. If the rest of the world poured cash into space with even a fraction of that commitment, would you be reading The Space Review in your O’Neill colony home, or glancing at it after buying T-shirts for the kids from a kiosk at Titan’s spaceport, after a diving vacation? (I’ll leave out the possibility that you may not be able to flush on the flight home, however.)


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