Space travel is a hot topic of conversation, whether it’s capturing the world’s audience by putting a man on the moon, or Mr Musk trying to colonise Mars. But what value does society see from this significant financial investment? You only have to look to mainstream media to witness famine and war, so why spend fortunes trying to explore new worlds whilst ours continues to suffer?
The funding for space exploration is drawn from taxation, therefore every citizen of the space-exploring nations effectively holds a stake. However, the most influential stakeholders are the national governments themselves, and they are arguably the biggest beneficiaries.
This article will explore the pros and cons of space explorations and as the funding from space exploration, is it all worth it?
There’s no space for it!
Every year the UK contributes €322.3 million (2015) to the European Space Agency (ESA), yet we still experience poverty on our streets. This contribution has very little impact on day to day human life besides being a figure of the 6 o’clock news. 4 million children live in poverty in the UK and the total ESA budget could be used to provide 85,000 school meals per day, to the children who need them most. This would have a much wider impact on the UK’s population. The National students survey showed that 80% of students worried about their money whilst a slightly lesser amount said their exams and diets suffered as a result. The ESA budget could be better used to support the 1 in 10 students who may have to drop out of university due to financial constraints and allow them to stay in education and go on to have successful careers.
The risk to human life linked to space exploration was made evident to the entire world when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight in January 1986. But despite no fresh major disasters associated to space exploration in recent years, the risk it places on human life has certainly not been averted.
Assessing the risk to life of exploring space is a difficult task. How can one determine the probability of an event occurring if the event itself is unknown? As a result, is the risk infinite? Thinking about these questions can lead us to dwell on the consequences of sending a human being to previously unexplored planets or solar systems. Inevitably, one of the outcomes that springs to mind is the loss of life. So, if the risk is infinite and the consequence is death, sending humans into space must be ethically and morally wrong.
It is not categorically proven that alien life does not exist, so why should the human race aim to populate new planets? History has shown that invasion always results in war and ultimately death, so why would this be any different in space? We have strict rules on earth about the boundaries between colonies but seem to believe these do not apply in space, meaning that we are breaching peoples/aliens human rights.
Space exploration comes at huge financial cost and also poses a risk to human life. To continue to engineer projects that have this burden on society means that by a consequentialism approach these activities should not happen. Furthermore, by virtue ethics it is wrong to continue with space exploration as extreme financial cost could be used benefit those less fortunate in society.
Right time, Right Space
Space exploration advances a nation’s prestige, and it also builds alliances between nations; NASA alone have agreements with two-thirds of the world’s nations. The most famous example of geopolitical motivations is the ‘Space Race’ between the USSR and the USA. The rivalry spurred humanity to the moon and, although initially hostile, in 1975 the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was one of the first bridges built between the former Cold War rivals. The founding of the ESA is another example of international co-operation and has allowed 22 smaller nations to partake in scientific research which would otherwise be beyond their means.
It can be argued that space exploration returns enough value to justify the spending of tax money. Space exploration has been the catalyst for many scientific breakthroughs. GPS, for example, which was established by using launching technology to place an array of satellites in orbit, has transformed the ease of travel for many citizens. NASA received $18b in taxes in 2015, but this is compensated alone by the use of GPS, which was estimated in 2013 to add $68.7b of value to the US alone.
Evaluating the entirety of space exploration benefits is almost an impossible a task as the value added is so large. It gives people a deeper insight about the universe and provides them with more information about the world they live in, and helps scientists learn more about the earth’s atmosphere so they can better predict weather and natural disasters, potentially saving lives. Who is to say more discoveries and benefits to society are not out there as exploration continues? As the earth’s resources continue to deplete, perhaps we should be striving for interplanetary colonisation while we still have the means to do so. If this is within our grasp and we don’t push for it, are we fulfilling our duty to future generations that could benefit?
If the issue is the funding for space exploration coming from taxation a solution may be to encourage private investment in the sector through contracts to companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin. Eventually, this option could lead to a reduction in governmental investment as the private sector begins to support itself as we are seeing beginning to see, for example SpaceX launching satellites for Orbcomm (2015).
Applying an ethical cycle analysis to the problem shows that space exploration is indeed worth the cost. The value added to society far outweighs the cost of exploring space, and space exploration could be seen as a fulfilment of duty towards future generations.