TOPIC GUIDE: Space Exploration

"Man not machines should explore space"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2008

AUTHOR: James Gledhill and Helen Birtwistle

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The successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander – the first space shuttle to land on Mars – the 50th anniversary of NASA, and China’s planned launch of a third manned shuttle have made 2008 a significant year for space exploration. But this year has also seen its fair share of drawbacks. The 2010 retirement of NASA’s present fleet of spacecraft, and the delay of the Orion shuttle replacement until 2014, leaves NASA in limbo. Debate between presidential candidates about the future of space exploration has also created uncertainty about what changes a new administration will bring to President Bush’s ‘New vision for space exploration’. In the UK, the publication of the Civil Space Strategy 2008-2012 and Beyond signalled the government’s reversal of the decision not to launch manned space missions made in the 1980s, but has attracted criticism and dissent. Space exploration thus stands at a crossroads. At the centre of this debate is the question of whether space exploration should involve humans or machines. The decisions made in the next few years will affect space policy for generations to come.

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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.

What factors have driven space exploration?
Exploration and discovery have been essential to the progress of human civilization, and are at the centre of the American ideal and its frontier spirit. However, the immediate context of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was a space race against the Soviet Union in which sending a man to the Moon was a way of asserting national superiority in the Cold War. Although some have identified a new space race between China and the US, today the geopolitical context is very different and a new rationale is needed. Whilst surveys have found a core of public support for space exploration in some form, there is also widespread agreement that the space programme has recently suffered from a lack of direction. In the future, should we pursue ambitious and inspirational manned missions or concentrate on more realistic and scientifically focussed unmanned missions?

Are manned missions inefficient and excessively risky?
The higher safety standards required for manned flight, together with the resources like water, air and food that need to be provided, mean that a shuttle mission can be 25 times more expensive than sending a satellite into orbit. Unmanned landers have touched down on Mars for $250 million. Estimates of what a manned mission to Mars could cost range from $30 to $500 billion. There would also be many more challenges to overcome than in a normal shuttle flight, ranging from the time involved – around three years – to radiation from solar storms and possible collisions with space debris. Given the problems experienced by recent shuttle flights, the argument goes, what is the likelihood of a successful mission to the Red Planet?

Are manned missions a scientific priority?
Pursuing human space exploration diverts resources away from other non-space related scientific fields that some argue are more deserving - although manned space flight has led to a number of spin-off technologies. Within the space exploration community, some argue that most scientific progress comes from unmanned missions that focus on the most compelling and answerable scientific questions. If one thinks of the most exciting recent developments in space science – the Hubble Space Telescope, the comet probe Deep Impact, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn – they are all unmanned projects. In early 2006 scientists were excited by the return of the Stardust capsule with samples of cometary dust, and the New Horizons mission saw a probe launched to Pluto. By contrast, the launch of the space shuttle suffered further delays.

Why send humans to Mars?
For advocates of human space exploration the debate goes beyond science, and the issue of whether robots could replace humans in performing scientific experiments, and involves what the scientific impulse says about humanity. A Mars mission would be a statement of the value of human civilization, something that is valuable in itself rather than for the scientific discoveries that it produces. It represents the sort of challenge that a society requires in order to advance and is part of humanity’s progress towards becoming a multi-planet spacefaring species. Some see the fact we have failed to continue pushing forward the boundaries of human space exploration as a sign that we have given up on reaching for the stars.

One giant leap backwards for mankind?
Is manned space flight and the desire to ‘boldly go’ into the unknown a heroic symbol of human aspiration in a world that has become obsessively concerned with eliminating all possible risks? Or is it rather the case that these ideas are outdated, that we should look for romance elsewhere and that seeking to recapture the spirit of exploration would interfere with scientific priorities? Does manned space flight still inspire the public, or, by continuing to pursue it despite the dangers, do we risk discrediting the entire space programme?


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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