Like most people, I have a great desire to learn about the wonders of the world in which we live. However, I also have a deep respect for human life and an understanding that ensuring a high quality of life for those around us is far more important than satiating curiosity about any topic, including space. The exploration of space not only exhausts resources that could be better used elsewhere, but also implies that the welfare of those around us is of less importance than exploring the unknown.
This debate is provoked by the recent Virgin Galactic crash, which resulted in the fatality of one pilot and the serious injury of another. Writing about the incident in a blog-post, Richard Branson stated that “every new transportation system has to deal with bad days” and that “space is hard — but worth it”. Is it really “worth it” though? Our hyper-commercialized world is one in which the loss of life and millions of pounds worth of technology is described as a “bad day” rather than a disaster.
However, though this commercial venture displays much that is wrong with our attitude to space exploration, I feel that it is more important to focus on trips funded or subsidised by taxpayers’ money, as these most directly detract from public spending.
Space exploration is a legitimate enterpise — but the needs of humanity should take precedence over its desires. We need to look after our planet and combat the multitude of prob- lems threatening our ecosystem: the disappearance of the rainforest, global warming, and the pollution of the oceans.
Rather than looking to the stars, we ought to look around us and focus on solving problems facing our generation and those to come.
We ought to consider those suffering from starvation before spending millions of pounds on the small chance of learning something new. I realise this is unfeasible — but it does put things in perspective. As President Eisenhower once said, “Every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
I acknowledge that space exploration has led to the creation of beneficial technologies. I’m grateful for Velcro, I really am. However, we could gain more by focusing our energies on creating things that directly benefit us, or directly alleviate urgent problems, at a fraction of the cost.
Moreover, we often lose the money and resources that we send into space: the history of failed missions to Mars dates back 40 years and includes the $165m Mars Polar Lander and the $125m Mars Climate Orbiter.
Space exploration is heralded as a way to gain scientific knowledge. However, the majority of NASA’s spending on research is ground-based. China has made no claims to scientific benefit from manned missions, and neither has Russia in recent years. This provokes the question “Why not focus on unmanned missions instead?”
My answer: because this too is a waste of resources. Areas of our plan- et are still relatively unknown, areas we know contain a wealth of life. Our seabed is relatively unexplored, as is Antarctica.
We also ought to question whether space exploration is really about the accumulation of knowledge. The most articulate opposition to the Apollo missions came from Nobel scientists, who objected to the cutting of their budgets to fund what DeGroot has labelled an “ego trip to the moon”.
China’s manned programme was intended to challenge publicly the US domination of space, while Bush’s pledge to boost spending on NASA and restart the manned mission to Mars (priced at $400 billion) was a political response to this.
Does the loss of human life and the expenditure of billions of dollars on an ego trip constitute a waste of resources? I think so.
At the dawn of the space age, people lived in fear as Russia and the USA vied for military and technological dominance. As astronauts sped away from Earth, humanity was reminded of the very real capacity we had to destroy each other. If we could send men to the stars, we could certainly fire nuclear warheads around the globe.
But during this time, we discovered phenomenal things through space exploration. We were reminded of just how boundless human creativity and ingenuity could be.
Just three decades after a war had ended in which planes were built from donated pots and pans, we had landed humans on the moon and brought them back safely. We had done so on the back of human intellect alone, unaided by subsequent scientific developments in the past four decades.
Space exploration is not a waste of resources, if only because it serves to give humanity a vision, to make us take note of just how incredibly far we have come and how far we still have to go.
Of course, people will argue that we have our priorities wrong. Space exploration, one could argue, is a luxury that can ill be afforded when people are suffering unnecessarily from diseases, research into which is under-funded. Wasteful when, as happened last week, scientific equipment and supplies, weighing 5000 pounds in total, were destroyed by a malfunction. Irresponsible when the gasses the rockets emit contribute to global warming.
I recognise and understand the importance of all of these issues, yet I still want space exploration to continue. When children sat and watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out from the lunar module, a generation of scientists was inspired. And when those people went on to create the Curiosity rover, currently roaming on the surface of Mars beaming back the most detailed pictures of the Martian surface we’ve ever seen, another generation was made.
Who knows what they might do? Could they be the scientists to establish colonies on the Moon, the generation to mine vital resources from outer-space?
The Universe is vast and complex, which is why space exploration is such an effective means of inspiring future generations to contribute to human understanding and development.
Whilst it is disappointing when we lose scientific equipment and other resources due to malfunctions, it is also a crucial part of the learning process. We may have failed to send this rocket into space, but we’ll learn from it how to send countless more there successfully.
And it is this challenge, the fact that it is not easy to explore space, which drives us to do exactly that. Humanity has always strived to venture into the unexplored, find new phenomena, new ways of improving our lives.
Space is no different. There are asteroids full of materials that can be mined without polluting the atmosphere and damaging the livelihood of others. And so many technologies, developed initially for space travel, have become central to how we live on Earth: safer, faster aeroplane travel, better housing insulation, fire- resistant materials, artificial limbs, robotics and so on.
If we can explore space, harness what it has to offer, and develop new technologies in the process, then we’ll be contributing rather than wasting resources.
Space exploration cannot be seen as a waste of resources. It is at least a means of testing and refining technology that, in fact, provides the resources we need to improve our lives and those of future generations.
More importantly than this, though, is that space exploration inspires us. As the International Space Station orbits above us, we are reminded that when collectively we act together, there is little we cannot do. That symbolism is priceless.