TOPIC GUIDE: Space Exploration

"Space exploration is a waste of time and money"

PUBLISHED: 23 Jan 2015

AUTHOR: Rob Lyons

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In the 45 years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, space exploration has continued to inspire awe and wonder around the world [Ref: NASA]. November 2014 marked the launch of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe Philae lander to the surface of Comet 67P, after a journey lasting 10 years, the first time such a landing had been made [Ref: ESA]. The landing inspired many to laud the achievement as a feat of human ingenuity and technological advancement, with one commentator proclaiming that: “Projects such as this one represent the best side of human nature” [Ref: Independent]. From this perspective space exploration is viewed as a good in and of itself, allowing us to expand our field of knowledge of the world, the universe and the origin of both. However, for all of its supporters, there are critics who suggest that space exploration is a luxurious waste of time and money. Opponents suggest that we would be better off using the skills and knowledge dedicated to space exploration elsewhere, with Gerard deGroot stating that: “Obscenely expensive manned missions, mean that practical, earth bound science suffers”, all for the sake of: “An ego trip to the moon” [Ref: Telegraph]. And with developing continents such as Africa [Ref: Guardian] and countries such as India [Ref: The Diplomat] now beginning their own space programmes, there has been growing alarm that space exploration is distracting us from tackling real world problems such as poverty, education and global warming. How, critics argue, can space exploration be a priority amid such pressing concerns [Ref: Financial Times]?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

An expensive and dangerous distraction?
Commentator Michele Hanson notes that: “...down here we’re on our way to hell in a handcart, battered by plagues, floods, famines, recessions, cold wars, blazing hot wars, displaced hordes, ruined lands and seas and general wretchedness, while they fritter their cleverness, energies and billions, poking about on a rock about 300 million miles away….never mind our origins, what about our future”[Ref: Guardian]? Why spend millions, if not billions, on space flights when, during the course of the last century, critics ask, deforestation has taken place at a rate of 50 football pitches per minute [Ref: Guardian] - shouldn’t we look after our own planet rather than attempting to leave it? One writer answers this by cautioning that: “The urge to explore and push ourselves out into the universe, is not mutually exclusive from the effort to improve our own minds and environment” [Ref: CNN]. Moreover, although it cost £1 billion to finance the Philae mission, supporters observe that it actually cost half of what it costs to build a modern submarine, and: “...has been spread over 20 years of scientific and industrial activity, creating thousands of jobs” [Ref: Guardian]. And for scientists such as Stephen Hawking, space travel is far from being an irrelevant and costly distraction - it is absolutely vital because: “...the human race has no future if it does not go into space” [Ref: Guardian]. Tied in with the issue of expense, the inherent risks involved in space exploration mean that it will always be controversial [Ref: EdQuestScience]. Even American space scientist James Van Allen admits that to many, space exploration: “ vicarious”, and asks if: “...the great national commitment of technical talent to human spaceflight and the ever present potential for the loss of precious human life are justifiable” [Ref: Guardian]. But in the wake of the recent Virgin Galactic accident [Ref: BBC News], supporters still claim that we should not be put off, because it is only after mistakes and corrections that we achieve our goals: “...because that’s how progress happens” [Ref:].

Human ingenuity or Superpower posturing?
Space exploration: “Speaks abundantly to our sense of human curiosity, of wonder and awe at the unknown” states Michael Griffin - in short, it inspires us [Ref: Air&Space]. As human beings, advocates point out, it is in our nature to explore, to overcome and conquer our environment. And the fact that we have managed to send the Rosetta probe a distance that equates to more than five times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, is evidence of this ingenuity [Ref: Independent]. Some of the technological advances made thanks to space travel have also impacted on our everyday lives: memory foam is used to manufacture prosthetic limbs, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is widely used in medicine [Ref:], and many other innovations [Ref: The Journal] were developed as a result of space exploration [Ref: NASA]. For example, in the 60 years since the first satellite, Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957 satellites have become central to our everyday lives [Ref: BBC News]. But others point out that historically the space race had more to do with international rivalries than science, innovation or human achievement [Ref: Cold War Museum], and was not: “...undertaken for the sake of knowledge, but (was) intrinsically tied to the military industrial complex” [Ref: Guardian]. One observer notes that it is: “Tacitly acknowledged” that “...there are obvious military applications to India’s space programme” which allied to its ballistics system, shows the world that it has long range missile capabilities [Ref: Russia Today]. In light of this, the start of a new space race is viewed by some as being between growing super powers China and India [Ref: Telegraph]. With America also showing its ambitions in December 2014, when NASA’s Orion system was sent into orbit with the aim of going back to the moon and, eventually, to Mars [Ref: Telegraph]. These developments prompted space exploration supporter Giles Whittell to admit that much of these: “...extraterrestrial activities are all about terrestrial swagger” rather than scientific innovation [Ref: The Times]. Even if this is true, it could still be argued that for all the Cold War logic behind them, the moon landings, for example, still inspire as a beacon of what can be achieved with technology, expertise and innovation, even 50 years on [Ref: National Geographic].

Space and the developing World
For critics, space travel: “Is a luxury which (India) cannot afford”, and instead, it: “...should be diverting more funds towards the alleviation of poverty” [Ref: Daily Mail]. For a country in which two-fifths of children suffer from malnutrition, and where half the population lack proper sanitation, is space exploration really what developing countries such as India should be concentrating on? “What if the 16,000 scientists and engineers now working on space development were instead deployed to fix rotten sanitation?” one publication asks [Ref: Economist]. With several African nations which receive aid from the UK, such as Nigeria, launching space programmes there are suggestions that Britain should not be subsidising: “...a space programme for a country in which more than 70% of the people live below the poverty line” [Ref: Daily Mail]. In response, supporter of new space programmes Priyamvada Gopal insists that: “Inquiry and exploration are not the prerogative of advanced capitalist Western nations” [Ref: Guardian]. An example of the fruits of this inquiry and exploration, is that a fierce monsoon in October 2014 killed very few people, compared with a similar strength one in 1999, which killed more than 10000, due in large part to improvements made to India’s weather satellites [Ref: Economist]. Furthermore, for developing countries, space exploration can show they are capable of much more than many outsiders would expect, acting as a: “...a shot in the arm for national self confidence” as one commentator puts it [Ref: Russia Today]. With all things considered, does space exploration signify the pinnacle of human achievement, embodying the spirit of innovation and ingenuity? Or, should we: “...keep a whole pile of dough for important and inspiring missions right here on earth” [Ref: CNN]? Is space exploration a waste of time and money?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Ending manned space exploration is the right thing

Steven Weinberg New Statesman 8 February 2010


Forget life on Mars; its life here that matters

Andrew Simms Guardian 3 June 2014

Mars can wait. Oceans cant

Amatai Etzioni CNN 17 August 2012

The space race is a pointless waste of money

Jeremy de Groot Telegraph 25 February 2009


The Rosetta mission shows us the very best of human nature

Joan Smith Independent 16 November 2014

One giant step

Tim Appleyard The Times 16 November 2014

Why this space story fills us with so much awe

Jonathan Freedland Guardian 14 November 2014

We are not chained to this planet forever

Tim Black spiked 29 August 2012


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

African urged to support continent’s first moon mission

David Smith Guardian 5 January 2015

Why should we go to Mars? Because its there

Giles Whittell The Times 6 December 2014

Pushing into space: not free, but worth it

Gene Seymour CNN 15 November 2014

Space travel is dangerous. There will be no tourists

Chris Taylor Mashable.Com 1 November 2014

India’s impressive space programme

Sudha Ramachandran Diplomat 13 October 2014

India’s Mars mission could be a giant leap

Priyamvada Gopal Guardian 24 September 2014

Is space travel worth the money?

Conor Farrell The Journal 27 February 2014

Why India’s Mars mission is about more than power and prestige

Sreenam Chaulia Russia Today 7 November 2013

Should we let go of our space fantasies?

John Horgan Scientific American 26 August 2012

Mars can wait. Oceans cant

Amatai Etzioni CNN 17 August 2012

India ‘Mars Fantasy’ defies earthly woes

Victor Mallet Financial Times 3 August 2012

Space technology in everyday life

Mike Wall Space.Com 31 March 2011

The reasons we explore space

Michael Griffin Air&Space Magazine 7 July 2007


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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