Does Any Country Really Need a Space Programme?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent: The original so called ‘space race’ between the USSR and the United States was really a by-product of the cold war. It was never about mankind conquering space or getting to the moon. The importance was the prestige of doing it first. The Russians got the jump on the U.S. By putting the first man in space in 1961 (Yuri Gagarin) but the space race was won when Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. It may have been a small step for man but it was a giant leap for American pride and a further affirmation that capitalism was superior to communism.

On November 3, 2011 China completed the first step of its plan to build a space station when Shenzhou 8 docked with the lab module Tiangong 1. The chief designer of the project, Zhou Jianping said that the space station would open to foreign scientists “in order to promote global scientific progress and to push human civilization forward”. In fact, scientific research is one of the main ways in which space programmes are justified. China’s space station also demonstrates its wealth and the ability of its engineers and scientists. This space station is as much about announcing itself as a superpower capable of matching the achievements of the United States.

The huge expense of space programmes are are also justified and referred to as ‘exploration’. Space, as we are told, is the final frontier. Unsurprisingly, since the cold war has long been over, and particularly because of economic realities, the famed NASA space programme has been scaled back. The last manned mission was completed on 20 June, 2011, and the Space Shuttle programme has been retired. However, this does not mean America is abandoning space. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a National Press Club address on July 1, 2011 that“American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century because we have laid the foundation for success – and failure is not an option”. NASA has also pointed out that they have plans to replace the Space Shuttle programme with a Next Generation Air Transportation System to be in place by the year 2025. However The fulfilment of these, and other ambitious plans may require money that the United States Government does not have, and certainly won’t have in the near term.

But what is the overarching purpose of all this exploration? Are we really going to establish a colony on the moon, or send a manned flight to Mars? It seems that the European Space Agency thinks so. In Russia on the 4th of November, 2011, the European Space Agency completed the Mars 500 project. This project was conducted in cooperation with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. In this 520 day project six individuals were sealed in an isolation chamber in order to simulate a journey to and from Mars. The ‘crew’ even undertook a ‘Mars walk’, as part of the attempt to create as authentic an experience as possible.

We really should be asking why are we inspecting other planets in our solar system, and carrying out experiments like the one mentioned? Is there really a good reason to establish a colony on the moon, or to land on Mars. While it is all well and good to know that humankind is capable of sending humans to other planets there is little real practical purpose to it, except for the ‘feel good’ sensation associated with such achievements. However, if we needed to colonise the moon or Mars because our civilization was under threat on Earth then there would be a very good reason to spend so much money. At the moment, catastrophic climate change would appear to pose the biggest threat to humanity’s future. However, it is very questionable that we have the time to establish a successful colony on the Moon or elsewhere before the full effects of climate change are felt. Therefore if we really do view climate change as a potentially severe threat to the survival of our species we really should be spending tax payer money on fighting climate change and doing what we can on Earth to mitigate the effects by preparing ourselves for them. In this context, the space programmes of any nation are a expensive folly.

Scientists such as Steven Hawking have argued strongly for the continuation of space exploration to ensure survival of our species in the long term “If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.” He states that this can be done by spending only a small fraction of global GDP, and that if we did, we could still afford to spend money on other important issues such as fighting climate change. The main problem with this argument that national budgets are already stretched. Getting various countries to co operate in order to build a strategic space programme is also unlikely, especially in the near term given the costs and the lack of a pressing need to rapidly expand mankind’s efforts to colonise other parts of our solar system. It is in fact, very hard to believe that there would be the will to establish such a co operative programme when the imminent threat of climate change isn’t enough to force any kind of binding global agreement with regards to global emissions.

If humankind is determined to keep going where no one has gone before, regardless of the reason, those countries actively engaged in space exploration (and depending on the reason, many who aren’t) will need to put aside their national pride and work towards a common goal rather than the piecemeal efforts currently being made. The comments, mentioned earlier, of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, certainly suggest that such a strong level of co-operation is extremely unlikely in the near future. The continuing financial difficulties faced by many Governments will force them to put their respective space programmes under the microscope and ask if they can be maintained under their current form. It is very difficult to believe that the answer is yes. This is not necessarily a bad thing when we have more pressing problems here on Earth.


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