The Blog

This Future Astronaut Believes Space Exploration is Worth the Cost

Where we diverged in opinion with the opposition was both on calculating the cost of space exploration and on calculating the true cost that neglecting to progress into the cosmos would bring to humanity.

On 5th February 2015, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate, sponsored by Mendeley, on the motion 'This House Believes Space Exploration is Worth the Cost'. Dr Christine Corbett Moran, a computational astrophysicist, debated in proposition of the motion, here outlines her stance on the debate.

It was an honour to recently debate with Professor Gerry Gilmore and Professor Alistair Reynolds on the side of space exploration being worth the cost. We discussed this issue constructively with Dr. Bapuji Roa Velagapudi, Myrto Vlazaki, and Cammy Mitchell (all involved in medical careers) in the Cambridge Union Society, the oldest debating society in the world. More than 80% of the attendees of the debate agreed with Professors Gilmore, Reynolds and myself that indeed it space exploration has been, is and will continue to be worth the cost. I won't go into the opposition's points in detail, as we were on the same page on so many of them: there are vast and terrible problems to be solved on earth and we need to commandeer more resources to solve them. Where we diverged in opinion with the opposition was both on calculating the cost of space exploration and on calculating the true cost that neglecting to progress into the cosmos would bring to humanity.

A typical argument against funding space exploration goes that money devoted to space exploration is diverted from charity and human developing programs, the particularly aggressive objectors citing endemic problems of the developing world. And yet the developing world itself sees vast value in space: Nigeria launched its first satellite in 2003, and China, India and others strive to replicate and expand achievements in technology and science to drive space exploration forward. India's space program and satellite constellations allow it to survey natural resources, enable communications, have disaster management support perform meteorology, and do pilot programs in tele-education and tele-medicine for an underserved population.

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalem, former president of India said: "As a scientist who has been part of the growth process of the space sector in India, I find this field of human endeavor has, in the last 50 years, made an unprecedented impact on the life of the human race."

Humanity as a whole-the developing and the developed world with their respective problems-broadly sees space exploration as an expression of being human and a vote for technological progress as a potential if unpredictable solution to many problems homegrown and abroad. No more than we demand a civilization put all art, music, and pleasure on hold until all of its human rights issues are solved can we demand that space exploration be relegated to that hypothetical place and time of a post-scarcity of problems. This is precisely because cultural development is a human right itself, and exploration of the cosmos is a prime form of that. As physicist Robert Wilson put it "this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country, but has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending".

In the early stages of space exploration, the bulk of the funding came from governments who helped inject research and experimental funds to push our capabilities further, faster. Though the future of space exploration was enabled by this early governmental research it now lies in the private industry which hopes to make billions and even trillions from the great unknown, creating jobs, opportunities, and perhaps even civilizations. It is the private corporation SpaceX, not the U.S. or international governments, that leads the way in developing technology and cultural will to visit and colonize Mars. Governmental funding of space exploration has in the past provided that catalyst to what industry will take to the next level. It will continue to do so at a lesser and sustainable scale with examples such as NASA's selection of SpaceX as part of America's human spaceflight program evincing the burgeoning governmental and industrial partnerships in this field.

It has been just over 200 years since the rocket equation based on Newton's third law was introduced. Shortly thereafter science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Orson Welles expanded our imaginations from The Earth to the Moon to Mars with The War of the Worlds. In between, 1929 saw the first liquid fuel rocket. This technology decades later culminated in the Apollo program and expanded humanity's reach-via robotic probes-into the solar system in the subsequent decades. Technology transfers from the space to the consumer sector abounded along the way but as Richard Dawkins succinctly said "justifying space exploration because we get non-stick frying pans [Teflon was a product of the space research] is like justifying music because it is good exercise for the violinist's right arm".

An EU report in 2000 concluded that abstaining from space investment at the EU level would result in a loss of leadership, competitiveness, a weak role in international space policy, difficulties in keeping scientists in the EU, a loss of past efforts, and introduce critical and perhaps even fatal delays at response when new opportunities or pressures inevitably present themselves all at a savings of roughly 0.7% of the EU's budget. Willingly entering a Middle Ages of space exploration is simply not worth the cost. Opponents to space exploration advocate that "Mars is not going anywhere" but without going to Mars and beyond, neither is all of humanity. We cannot wait until the time we must go to Mars and beyond to attempt to do so, by then it is already too late; rather, we must develop space exploration capabilities to help guide humanity to a Universe of wonder.