Image of the SLS rocket ready for launch

Debate: For and against space exploration - is space research a waste of time?

Image credit: NASA

This house believes that in a time of collapsing national economies and worldwide austerity measures, investment in space is a bad use of resources.

For: Investing in further scientific exploration of space is a waste of resources

By Robin Hanbury-Tenison

The amount of money being spent on space research is in the billions and it has achieved extraordinarily little except for a bit of improved technology which would probably have come about anyway by other means. Whether or not global warming is real, and whether or not we are facing imminent catastrophe on this planet, we are certainly facing serious issues here on Earth, and they are getting worse as we simply watch them. These include the disappearance of the rainforest, the pollution of the oceans, and increased desertification of an area about the size of England every year. These are the general crises that are coming to the planet, quite apart from the economic ones we’re so obsessed with at the moment.

I have for some time considered space research a gross waste of money, time and effort that could be much better applied to the management of our own planet. I’m currently writing a book about what remains of the Central American rainforest of the Petén and looking at ways of protecting it. But the only way you can really protect rainforest, and I’ve been trying to do this for 40 years, is to make it more valuable standing than cut. The Petén is interesting because this is where the Maya were. Their civilisation collapsed in about 900AD because they over-exploited their environment.

We know that all civilisations collapse after about 500 years, prior to which you have big cities, people in the countryside servicing the cities. But inevitably the greed of development leads to the extinction of a culture. This is exactly what is happening to us today. We’re experiencing climate change, famine, drought, warfare and we’re investing money needed to solve these problems in Space.

If the collapse of civilisations is a recurrent theme, then at we should be looking for ways of managing the planet’s resources in order to make how we live sustainable. The way to do that is not to go charging off into Space, wasting unbelievable quantities of money in pursuit of some chimera that we might in one day come back with some valuable mineral. Science should be devoting the sorts of sums of money that it is pumping into space to working out how to mange the climate here on Earth.

There has been research going on for 65 years into climate management. We know how to seed clouds and we know how to make it rain when we want it to rain. The Chinese and the Russians are very switched on to this and they know how to do it. The Chinese used it to prevent rain during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and it never rains on the Victory Day Parade in Russia. So the technology for managing the weather is in place and I think we should devote massive resources to developing that technology and taking it from the military into the civilian world.

The big elephant in the room in all this is the issue of population. We all know it will rise to 10 billion or so in the next few decades. The only way to reduce population is prosperity, because we prosperous countries do not breed so fast. The way to do that is to give people enough to eat. The way to do that is to make it rain. We should reallocate the funds currently being spent on Space research to the rather simple notion of making it rain where and when we want it.

Now there will be pro-space lobbyists who agree with every word of this, but will complain that I want to take their money off them. But there isn’t enough money to go around. In terms of expenditure on weather management since the Second World War there’s only been tens of millions spent on research – as opposed to tens of billions on space research.

If you put the money that is wasted in space into the hands of climatologists you could have lasting benefits for mankind. I don’t think space science is bad science, I just think it’s a waste of time.

Against: Investing in further scientific exploration of space is a good use of resources that will ultimately help to stimulate global economies

By Piers Bizony

We’re living in a tremendously virtual age where many young people think that all of the discoveries that they need to make will happen on their laptops and smartphones. For me, it’s more important than ever to reintroduce a sense of physical exploration, to get out there into strange, hostile and challenging environments. There is probably 99 per cent of deep oceans and all of space to left explore, and it is only by putting humans into new physical locations that we’ll be able to make genuine and crucial scientific discoveries. Human presence in science is almost the definition of science. It’s a human endeavour to gather knowledge, not just a machine endeavour to gather data. The robots we send into these environments don’t know what to look for, and above all they don’t know how to be surprised by something like the strange glint of a rock.

Some will say that we’re in the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s and we simply don’t have spare pocket money for this. But, the first thing to remember when looking at the recent announcement that Nasa is to put $1.6bn into a project to get its astronauts up the International Space Station, is that this is actually not a very large sum of money.

Besides, one of the most successful responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s was to pump money into infrastructure and technology – it was called Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was controversial at the time, but by the end of that decade, the USA was the most powerful nation on Earth. What are governments for if they don’t invest? It’s much better to put taxpayers’ money into jobs and new technologies than simply bailing out banks.

The benefits of continuing to conduct off-world scientific exploration in the short term are Earthly. They have to do with forging new and unprecedented diplomatic relationships between countries, while getting engineers with different backgrounds and traditions to work together.

It also ensures the development of a good technology base, not only among companies, but among young people who need something to inspire them through the educational system. These people are more likely to be interested in building a space ship than something less glamorous. Space science also keeps coming up with new challenges in terms of materials, communications and so on. Solving these challenges feeds back into the terrestrial economy. People are under the illusion that investing in rockets involves little more than sticking money into the pipe and then setting fire to it. But that’s not at all the case. The money gets circulated here on the ground. There has never been a space programme that hasn’t been a good economic stimulus.

What the current team of scientists is doing at the moment is developing a framework to teach us how to maintain a long-term presence in space. It started with how to build structures in space, and they’re now beginning to conduct scientific experiments up there. It has taken some time for the science to feed back to us, but this is because constructing the Space Station itself has been complicated.

The short cycle of governments means that it’s not always in their interest to look to the long term. But when there are international alliances it’s harder for any given government to withdraw from projects and ruin everything for everyone else. Nasa called in international allies to help to justify it and in so doing put itself in a position where it didn’t want to disappoint any of those allies by cancelling large chunks of the programme. It’s these alliances that are the key to ensuring the long-term potential for space exploration.

And so the question of investment in space isn’t one of throwing good money after bad. In terms of science, 99.999 per cent of all that we need to know is off-world. It’s inconceivable that we don’t send more human beings out there to find out more about it.

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