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Debate: Space exploration

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Should mankind invest in the exploration of space?

Background and context

The space programmes of both the USA and the USSR became perhaps the most important prestige projects of the Cold War.
From the launch of Sputnik - the first artificial satellite - in 1957, through to the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, the first moon landing in 1969, and beyond, both superpowers invested huge amounts of money in order to outdo each other in the so-called ‘space race’. At the time, this was a convenient project to choose: while it allowed the two nations to compete in a supposedly peaceful area, proving their scientific achievements, the work on rockets also fed directly into work on the inter-continental ballistic missiles which would allow them to strike at each other with nuclear weapons in the event of war. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the future of space exploration has become less clear. Russia no longer has the resources to invest in a substantial space programme; without an enemy to compete with, the USA has also cut back on its exploration programmes. The emphasis is now on missions which are ‘faster, better, cheaper’ – grand projects such as the Voyager missions of the late 1970s seem unlikely to be repeated. In particular, the commitment to manned exploration of space has almost disappeared; although potential missions to Mars are occasionally mentioned in the press, there are no solid plans to send human beings to another planet in the short to medium term. The proposition in this debate will be proposing a renewed commitment to the exploration of space; the opposition focuses on the practicalities, and the fact that money may be better spent elsewhere.
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Argument #1

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Yes

Mankind must always struggle to expand its horizons. The desire to know what lies beyond current knowledge, the curiosity that constantly pushes at the boundaries of our understanding, is one of our noblest characteristics. The exploration of the universe is a high ideal - space truly is the final frontier. The instinct to explore is fundamentally human; already some of our most amazing achievements have taken place in space. No-one can deny the sense of wonder, world-wide, when for the first time a new man-made star rose in the sky, or when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon. Space exploration speaks to that part of us which rises above the everyday.

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No

High ideals are all well and good, but not when they come at the expense of the present. Our world is marred by war, famine, and poverty; billions of people are struggling simply to live from day to day. Our dreams of exploring space are a luxury they cannot afford. Instead of wasting our time and effort on macho prestige projects such as the space programme, we must set ourselves new targets. Once we have addressed the problems we face on Earth, we will have all the time we want to explore the universe; but not before then. The money spent on probes to distant planets would be better invested in the people of our own planet. A world free from disease, a world where no-one lives in hunger, would be a truly great achievement.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The exploitation of space has directly changed our world. Satellites orbiting the Earth allow us to communicate instantaneously with people on different continents, and to broadcast to people all over the world. The Global Positioning System allows us to pinpoint our location anywhere in the world. Weather satellites save lives by giving advance warning of adverse conditions, and together with other scientific instruments in orbit they have helped us understand our own world better. Research into climate change, for example, would be almost impossible without the data provided by satellites.

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No

Satellite technology has of course had a beneficial effect on our world. However, there is a huge difference between launching satellites into Earth orbit, and exploring space. Missions to other planets, and into interstellar space, do not contribute to life on our planet. Moreover, satellites are largely commercial - they are launched by private companies, and are maintained by the profits which they lead to. True space exploration could never be commercial, and requires huge government subsidies - the Voyager missions alone cost just under $1 billion. This money could be much better spent elsewhere.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Space exploration has also led to many indirect benefits. The challenge and difficulty of the space programme, and its ability to draw on some of the finest minds, has brought about great leaps in technology. The need to reduce weight on rockets led to miniaturisation, and so to the micro-chip and the modern computer. The need to protect astronauts led to development of suits suitable for extreme conditions (similar suits are nowadays used by firefighters). The need to produce safe but efficient power-sources for the Apollo missions led to the development of practical fuel-cells, which are now being explored as a possible future power-source for cleaner cars. The effects of zero-gravity on astronauts has substantially added to our knowledge of the workings of the human body, and the ageing process. We can never know exactly which benefits will emerge from the space programme in future, but we do know that we will constantly meet new obstacles in pursuit of our goals, and in overcoming them will find new solutions to old problems.

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No

These spin-off advantages could come from any ‘blue-sky’ project - they are a result of the huge amounts of money and manpower devoted to the space programme, giving people the resources they need to solve problems, rather than a result of the programme itself. For example, many of the leaps forward in miniaturisation were in fact the result of trying to build better nuclear missiles; this is not a good reason to continue building nuclear weapons. It would be far better to devote similar resources to projects with worthier goals – for example cancer research, or research into renewable energy sources. These too could have many spin-off benefits, but would tackle real problems.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Space exploration is an investment in the future. Our world is rapidly running out of resources. Overpopulation could become a serious worldwide threat. In this position, it would be foolish to ignore the vast potential of our own solar system – mining resources on asteroids or other planets, or even the possibility of colonising other worlds. If we fail to continue to develop the ability to take advantage of these possibilities, we may in the future find it is too late.

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No

Space exploration is a waste of resources. If we wish to tackle the problems of over-population, or of the depletion of resources, we must deal with them on the Earth instead of chasing an elusive dream. There are practical ways in which we can deal with the problems of our planet, and we must pursue them with all the resources and all the political will we have available.

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