Matthew vs Melissa: Is there a point to space exploration?

Matthew and Melissa

Last week Melissa and Matthew debated the Manston airport site. The winner of that debate can’t be measured as some people were so ‘enthusiastic’ about their own view that they corrupted the poll.

This week Melissa and Matthew fly a little further and debate the merits, or not, of space exploration.

Melissa says:

Did you see the moon last night? Glorious, wasn’t it? A gentle light to illuminate poets and lovers. Well, following the space race, it’s covered in rubbish. About 400000 lbs of muck, left behind by space explorers, all determined to prove their manhood by getting there first, then using it for scientific experiments. Isn’t it enough to make you weep? Bad enough they’ve demystified the moon. Now they want the rest of the universe.

That’s men for you. Never satisfied with what they’ve got.

The UK spends around £277million a year on space exploration. That’s a tricky figure to envisage, so think of it as 120000 nurses, or 634000 school pupils getting their lunches free for a year. So, what return do we get on that investment? I’ll leave you here a moment to ponder.

No, me neither. Some jobs, I suppose, and the prospect of meeting some aliens; perhaps  the hope of colonising and destroying other planets as effectively as we have our own. Famously, we got Teflon from the space race, although actually that’s a myth: it was invented about 30 years beforehand. But even if space exploration meant I could fry my husband’s egg oil-free of a morning, that still seems a pretty poor exchange for all those millions.

There’s a chance we may learn something in space that will benefit all humankind, they say – medicines, or water supply, or cleaner, more efficient ways to grow food. Maybe we will, although the cost will then be passed on to the consumer, and the cost will be – inevitably – astronomical. What on earth could we learn to justify that kind of cost, that couldn’t be learned here on Earth?

Our planet is broken, chiefly by the drive for profits, technological advances and ego-enhancement. Global warming and war means millions more people every year are being displaced and becoming refugees. There are some aliens right there for you to seek out, if you like. That £277million could instead be used to fight famine, climate change, disease; carry out a mass vaccination programme, build schools, assist developing countries.

It reminds me of the fight to teach your toddler to clean up his mess before he rushes off to make a new one. Put your paints away before you attack the sandpit! That’s rule one. They have to learn it. And so, it seems, do we.

We’re struggling to feed and shelter our fellow planet-dwellers already, without looking for different species, who might be interesting, perhaps, but might equally be aggressive, or carry a deadly virus, or homophobic, or fat-shaming, or start every sentence with ‘so’, or just be really boring. And if we do find other life forms, so what? Who cares, really? Will they minimise my pores or bring down the price of bananas? Unlikely. Probably they don’t even exist, but even if they do – jeez, there’s 25000 people in Broadstairs, and I only know about 20 of them. I don’t have to visit Mars to meet strangers. I can go to Budgens.

And honestly, most of the strangers in Budgens are annoying twits. I doubt very much ET would be that different.

Not different enough to justify that £277million ticket price, anyhow.

Matthew says:

Speak to people who lived through in the 1960s and you might find that they feel mis-sold a future. There was a sense of promise in that decade which vanished all too quickly in the following decades – and that promise was space and colonies on the moon.

When President Kennedy promised to get a man on the moon by the end of 1969, most people thought he was mad. But NASA succeeded, and it seemed that we were going places, literally as well as emotionally and spiritually; we had escaped the confines of our planet, and the universe was our oyster. We could explore Mars and other planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

In a way, of course, we have; with ever-sophisticated telescopes, we’re seeing further and further in the darkest corners of the Milky Way, and we can see that the galaxy is bigger and more complicated than we ever imagined. We’ve discovered more worlds than we ever knew existed; even if we don’t possess the technology to get there right now, we know that they’re out there, full of potential and discovery.

But why should we even bother exploring space? The political will seems to have withered on the vine of practicalities and real-world problems; President Trump’s space fleet proposal aside, no serious political strategy is in place to get much beyond a manned visit to Mars in the next few decades – a goal that American, European, and Chinese agencies are actively getting ready for right now. That in itself is a huge undertaking, but there’s a huge disinterest in space exploration today compared to the heyday of the fifties and sixties – and a lot of questions as to why we should continue investing in the space programme.

There are compelling arguments in favour of exploring beyond our jewel of a world, and they far outweigh any arguments against leaving our atmosphere behind.

First and foremost; curiosity. Who hasn’t had the urge to know what’s over the next hill? What child has not been drawn to explore beyond the familiar streets of the neighbourhood? Why shouldn’t we want to answer the age-old question; “What’s out there?”

By putting our species onto other worlds, we expand our potential to survive. Why do we have the right to decide we can continue the existence of our species? Because we’re alive and can think, all at the same time. We are the sole species on Earth with sentience, so we’re in a unique position; we can think about the survival of our kind and actually do something about it. We might go extinct tomorrow, but if something threatened us decades or centuries from now, we have the opportunity to keep our species going. What a wonderful thought.

According to a 2012 UN Programme for the Environment report, the Earth can sustain a population of eight-to-16 billion at most. Considering that we have already surpassed seven billion, we need to look at new worlds on which to establish ourselves. It is a search that has already begun.

From the thermal space blanket, used today by marathon runners at the end of races, to portable vacuum cleaners, space research has bequeathed surprising innovations we non-astronauts use every day.

There are indeed practical and economic reasons to explore space, but there are other, less rational reasons too. There’s a motive underpinning people’s willingness to risk their lives exploring space: the thirst for exploration, which has characterised humanity. Without this thirst, our ancestors would never have left Africa, let alone set foot on the moon. And we would never have gone to a comet, as last year’s Rosetta mission did, to search for the origins of life.

We want to leave something behind to show the next generation, or the generations after that, what we did with our time. We build monuments to our knowledge and abilities; we create cathedrals and pyramids, art galleries and museums.

The people who started cathedrals didn’t live to finish them. Society as a whole had to be dedicated to the completion of those projects. We owe Western civilization as we know it today to that kind of thinking: the ability to have a constancy of purpose across years and decades.

Societies will not succeed in the long run if we place our resources and efforts in enterprises that don’t provide concrete value. But we seek to improve ourselves and our society; we want to be better than we are, even if that takes fifty, a hundred, or a thousand generations. We can see beyond our own lifetimes and know we are a part of something bigger than ourselves; it might take us a thousand years, but we make a step in the right direction now and see the start of our spread amongst the stars.

Space exploration: I agree with

Not sure
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