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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Space Exploration DEBATE IN CONTEXT

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.

Debating Manned Moon Missions

Kenneth R Fletcher Smithsonian Magazine July 2008

The race for space

Nick Dusic The Journal 26 February 2008

Big Question: Is manned space travel a waste of time and money?

Rupert Cornwell Independent 6 July 2006

Seeking a rationale for human space exploration

Jeff Foust The Space Review 9 February 2004


British space policy on life, the universe and everything

Michael Huang Space Review 17 March 2008

Is space exploration worth the cost?

David Livingston Space Review 21 January 2008

Space exploration does not come cheap

Editorial New Scientist 8 September 2007

Retreating from the final frontier

Henry Joy McCracken spiked 3 August 2005

The human explorer

Robert Zubrin The New Atlantis 5 February 2004


A waste of space

Robin McKie New Statesman 3 April 2008

Let’s forget Nasa’s fancy ideas

Martin Rees The Times 14 February 2008

An interview with Steven Weinberg

Sam Dinkin Space Review 14 January 2008

Nasa and its small, sideways step for mankind

Tim Hames The Times 8 August 2005

The Virtual Astronaut

Robert Park The New Atlantis 5 February 2004


UK Civil space strategy 2008-2012 and beyond

British National Space Centre 12 February 2008


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.


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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