Battle in Print: Debating Matters head-to-head on space exploration: man not machine should explore space

Daniel Green and Charlotte Blair, 23 October 2008

From: Daniel To: Charlotte

Exploration has enchanted humans from our prehistoric ancestors’ migration out of Africa to the Apollo programme in the mid 20th century; we have continuously searched for new land on which to make our mark. Our motivations have been many and varied, but we have never stopped. Neil Armstrong’s words as he stepped off the Eagle lunar landing module in 1969 will echo through history as proof of that.

However, in the 21st century technological progress is changing our understanding of exploration. Whereas in the past we relied on human presence; our judgment, industriousness and courage, to reach our destinations, now we can introduce a substitute to remotely examine new territory. In many areas these automated replacements are a distinct improvement on our own efforts. Yet, their numerous advantages do not prevent many of us from recoiling at the thought of them superseding our human explorers.

Why? Because we understand that exploration represents more than a scientific search for answers and truth. Exploration is an instinctive exercise, and often an emotional one. The image of a human standing on virgin land is quite unique in its power, and throughout history has proved capable of invigorating the human race en masse. Armstrong’s first steps on the moon were watched by over 600 million people worldwide; Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe drew the admiration of an entire nation; and Jason and his Argonauts are still famous, millennia after their story was first told. We love to explore, and are rightly unnerved when we see the next frontier being handed over to machines to which the majority of us have very little attachment or sense of solidarity. Our own planet has been mapped out for all to see on Google Earth, so where else is left for our adventurers to expend their energies? Manned space travel is undoubtedly high risk but we should not let that stop us. These pursuits bring out the very best in our nature: our bravery, intelligence and persistence. Nothing worth so much is ever obtained free from sacrifice.

Our scientific advancement is a marvel to behold, and now dominates many aspects of our civilization. However, this debate highlights particularly well the unresolved issue of its ultimate role in society. While science effectively raises our standard of living, it fails completely to cater for the fact that we still live from day to day through our experiences and our desires. Space exploration is a universally significant exercise, so must be undertaken with all of these in mind. Manned exploration missions utilize science to achieve their aims, just as unmanned missions do. But their success is not only measured by their scientific worth. More importantly they inspire, and beyond that they satisfy our innate desire to see and experience the physical expansion of our human existence. They are worth so much more than their unmanned counterparts and as such should once again become the focus of our extra-terrestrial adventures.

For our explorers, those vast undiscovered tracts of space will never stop calling. It is time our politicians, thinkers and dreamers reassessed their aspirations and challenged our scientists and engineers to truly excite us by lifting humans to new horizons.

From: Charlotte   To: Daniel

The images of Columbus’ and Drakes’ glorious adventures you paint are indeed inspirational examples of human bravery, passion and intelligence. Nevertheless, you are mistaken in believing it sensible or logical to advocate the manned exploration of space with the same emotional worth. However evocative the image of lifting man into space may be, to argue for this alongside science undermines your argument. Science by its very nature is defined by the objectivity of its conduct. Scientific research is not valid unless it adheres to strict requirements in order to make it a ‘fair test’. With this in mind, isn’t it about time to let go of the romance and get realistic about space exploration?

In my opinion, it is wrong to brand Columbus and Armstrong as ‘adventurers’. Columbus was not gallivanting around the world to conquer ‘virgin lands’ and push the boundaries of human knowledge. He was no scientist; he was a mere merchant, who was, to his credit, a little more ambitious than the rest, searching for a quicker trade route to the spices of the Indies. Moreover, his investments were funded by the monarchs of Europe who expected a decent return. Whereas it seems today, manned space missions can be pointless escapades, at high risk, with little or no scientific merit.

I agree that space exploration is more than documentation and analysis of a planet but isn’t it more importantly about going further than ever before? Science is about pushing boundaries in the bid for greater knowledge, and isn’t that something the human race prides itself on? All manned missions to space have demonstrated is that they are a barrier to the exploration of space. It is frustrating that manned missions achieve so little in comparison to unmanned missions. It is slightly ironic that we advocate the conquering of new frontiers yet allow human limitations to hinder our understanding of life beyond our own. Machines do surpass many human abilities. If this were any other private industry, machines would be the obvious choice, because they are the better choice. However, in the context of space exploration, it seems some cannot shift their sentiment for the greater good of science.

Why is it necessary to elevate the elite few to the glory of space? Can’t we share these experiences as a global community by using machines to project images down to earth?  Think of the great leaps that have been made in space since Armstrong’s first stroll along the moon: the Hubble Telescope, the comet probe Deep Impact, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, and most recently the probe launched to Pluto. All unmanned missions.

It is sad that because the same media spectacle does not apply to missions that don’t involve humans, machines in space get a negative image when the scientific value is far greater. A culture of fear has tainted the success of unmanned missions as some worry the machines will be ‘superceding our human explorers’. Fortunately, this is no Space Odyssey and the more accurate interpretation is that machines have become an extension of humans in space. We all understand the hostile nature of space and the expense of inclusion of humans in missions. Isn’t it a little bit immature to treat space as all about the ‘desire’ of humans and not about the science? Is it really worth the human risk? Or the investment?

This is the 21st century and we should be excited about possibilities and opportunities that machines have to offer. They are sophisticated, robust and hard-wearing. They do not need sustaining like humans, or even brought back to earth. They can venture further and deeper than ever into the ‘unknown’ without the risk of human tragedy or hindrance. As Robert Park argues, humans in space are merely extremely expensive passengers, machines do all the work. Imagine how little we would know if we insisted on employing manned missions for exploration, compare the fountain of knowledge the world of science would have achieved through 500 years of manned exploration to that of 500 years of unmanned exploration.

From: Daniel To: Charlotte

You make a strong argument for the sole use of machines in space, and I concede that as information gathering instruments they far outstrip our own potential. They are clinical, efficient and dispassionate. If a scientific approach to space travel undermines an emotional one and vice versa, as you make out, then it is clear that one must be discarded or suppressed. Optimise scientific progress, or emotional impact. The question is which one? For an exercise tied up so closely to our understanding of human nature an expressive method, which communicates with every member of our species, is vital. Science is nothing but a tool for most of us; a tool we understand very little about and could put to best use providing powerful demonstrations of human ability that affects how we feel. Unfortunately for scientific purists we must be democratic in this affair, and Joe Bloggs down the street and his six billion counterparts couldn’t give a damn about the specific characteristics of a quasar. But a man on Mars is a different story! Maybe those boffins should loosen up, forget the price and enjoy it too.

I agree that machines are ‘merely an extension of humans’, just as a film camera is an extension of my eyes. I could watch videos of the Northern Lights; find out why, where and when they occur, and write a groundbreaking PhD thesis on the information I had gathered, all from my home computer. As a scientist all that knowledge would undoubtedly interest me. Still…I, like most others, would rather lie beneath them if I could. Unmanned space exploration, however effective, will never and can never feel like, provide the same pleasure or fulfilment as the real thing.

As for your suggestion that private industry would take space exploration in the direction of unmanned missions, you have only to look at Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise and the distinct lack of commercial interest in any long distance scientific probe of the Cassini-Huygens type, to discover the fallacy there. Industry understands that profits will be created by providing what the vast majority of its customers want: manned space travel. Meanwhile, remember that it is Branson’s audacity that we recognise and admire today rather than his potential financial success. Columbus may have been a merchant as the history student in you points out. But he will always be remembered first and foremost as the explorer who discovered the Americas. The fact that we enjoy and aspire to human led exploration is staring us in the face in today’s papers and in our school history books.

Exploration is an innate urge and that is why people are willing to pay dearly for it. It sends a shiver down our spines in a manner no machine ever could. Without risk and passion it is nothing. There isn’t anything immature about taking steps to satisfy your soul, about admitting we are prepared to risk lives in search of an emotional goal. It is a bold statement, but an infinitely honest and human one. In the 21st century it would be comforting to think we have started thinking about how our tremendous knowledge could be put to good use.

Finally, I would like to point out the whole ‘fountain of knowledge’ you could gain from your 500 years of unmanned exploration will do very little to get humans off this planet and living in the stars, which must ultimately be the goal of space exploration. In the short term this is infeasible, but no one can deny that must be the direction we are heading in; the idea that keeps us spellbound by the universe. Without the practical engineering in place, developed through 500 years of manned space travel, we will be grounded forever.

From: Charlotte To: Daniel

I admire the innate human urge to explore that you evoke in your argument. However, I think you are overplaying the importance of the symbolic value of man in space. You rightly bring up the subject of what we all want to gain from space exploration. Undoubtedly there are many that would love to have an ‘out of this world’ experience, but a more overriding universal feeling is that we all want answers. Whether we seek those in faith, religion or science, exploration of space is one step closer to finding out why we are here so it is only logical to optimise scientific progress to the benefit of us all.

But, it is only spectacle that seems to fuel your reasoning for manned missions because that’s a ‘different story’. Why allow the expectations of science be governed by the media? Why should Joe Bloggs, who you claim doesn’t ‘give a damn’ about worthy scientific research, then tell NASA what to do with their money? NASA is not the sort of institute that should be expected to dumb down science for the masses.

As a result, NASA has been under pressure to deliver this new ‘iconic’ figure of man in space and are in turn draining funds from the real science that it does. I bet if Joe Bloggs knew how much of his taxes were being wasted on pointless manned missions he’d have something more to say on the matter. Does Joe Bloggs know it is 25 times more expensive than an unmanned mission, reaching astronomical figures of up to $500 billion dollars? More which could be much better spent in the aim of scientific achievement. If we were to put men on Mars they would be able to provide us no more information than the highly successful Rover module, which only cost less than $800 million. Even high officials in NASA have admitted that it is anything but purely practical when trying to defend manned missions.

So yes, let’s leave the playboy millionaires like Richard Branson to invest in manned space missions. Let the private sector cater for the rich and elite in their next flashy escapade. But let’s use public money to benefit the global community, to fund viable and worthy scientific research.

Your defence of manned space missions comes across as an advertisement that uses evocative rhetoric. You approach the whole thing as a business plan: give the people what they want because they ‘will pay dearly for it’. Arguing that manned missions are worthwhile because you are ‘prepared to risk lives in search of an emotional goal’ sounds very romantic. However, the only emotions that come across are rather selfish and only demonstrate that aspiration and ambition are the factors contributing to fatalities.

The most recent of which was the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 bursting into a ball of flames as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Fourteen astronauts in the two missions have lost their lives due to the dangers of travelling in space. Was it worth it? Why are we encouraging risk? You say ‘there isn’t anything immature about taking steps to satisfy your soul’; it sounds more like a line the Devil would use as he points to the dotted line! And if we continue space exploration in this vein we will indeed just be signing lives away!

If we really search for something inspiring why can we not embrace the technological advancements we have made with these machines? Isn’t it just as glorious to pride ourselves as a race of sophisticated inventors as explorers? I disagree that unmanned missions will do nothing to get humans off this planet. What we could find there could completely change physics as we know it on Earth, and this knowledge could open new doors to technological advancements which may well allow manned missions to finally become practical.

From: Daniel To: Charlotte

Firstly, I fail to see how my comment, ‘Maybe those boffins should loosen up (and) forget the price’, resembles any type of coherent business plan, Satanically drafted or otherwise. Secondly, I find myself having to reiterate that science is not the be all and end all of space exploration. NASA and the ESA are funded by Joe Bloggs’ taxes and so it is not ‘selfish’ for me or him to expect a return that is a little more relevant to the life we lead. The fact remains that the vast majority of the humans on this earth would gain far more short and long-term satisfaction from seeing one man exploring a new planet than one hundred robots swarming in his place.

Whether or not you consider manned missions a ‘practical concept’ depends entirely on the value you put on them. We regularly send humans into space, and although they do not travel very far from our home planet and take large risks to do so, the act of putting humans outside our atmosphere is by no means impractical. I would argue that however tragic those 14 deaths were, the space programmes of the 20th century were still worth it. Yes it is ambition that cost us, but if all aspirations were dropped at the first sight of danger there wouldn’t be much point aspiring in the first place. Those lives were lost in pursuit of some of the defining moments of our entire history and you can be sure that many more lives have been willingly sacrificed for far less without such uproar.

I believe it is pointless to search for the strict rationality in this debate, no matter how much you crave it. It will always be difficult to justify manned space exploration with facts and figures on a screen because we cannot easily quantify the satisfaction we gain from them. There is definitely something wonderful in watching your fellow humans taking on the universe for the sake of the challenge, but no way could we put a number on it. However you look at it, the prospect of plunging governments into debt or losing able astronauts in accidents loses significance when we become remembered as the first generation to extend our human civilisation into the rest of the universe. Rational, scientific processes are perfect for realising our ambitions, but the best ambitions are always absurd. Columbus certainly didn’t display much rational thought in deciding to sail blindly west towards the Indies, and Magellan didn’t even make it back from his circumnavigation of the globe. These heroic escapades are the most foolish but equally the most brilliant. We rightly aspire to that level of courage, and more importantly the confidence that life is there to be lived.

Unfortunately we can’t all sit astride the next rocket to Mars, but as you say, we are a race of inventors. A race of inventors, explorers, artists, leaders and many more things. We all deserve the right to participation in this adventure. As inventors we can take great pride from the success of our remote spacecraft, but even greater pride from our success in the far superior challenge of transporting, supporting and empowering humans in deepest space. The engineering and logistics required is on a different, grander scale, and the price of failure far higher. This is not a question of dumbing down, but wising up. There is nothing inglorious about it; building the vessel to lift humans to the stars. In fact for an inventor there could hardly be anything greater. Manned space exploration is as much a celebration of our technological prowess as our courage and daring.

I admit that man exploring space holds symbolic appeal to me, and this raises my final and greatest concern with your argument. Perhaps growing up in a relatively bland political climate has blunted our own experiences; it is, however, vital to appreciate the power of ‘symbols’ and how they’re made. Throughout human history millions have willingly given their lives in the defence or pursuit of symbols or ideals. Soldiers, protesters and astronauts are renowned for placing symbols above their own safety. They will continue to do so as long as there are wrongs to right or goals to reach. Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest, and the fall of the Berlin Wall are just a few symbolic events that represent far more than they physically comprise. Each one without exception acts as a source of inspiration, just as each one is grounded in its fair share of tragedy. To dismiss the symbolic importance of manned space exploration in favour of science may seem rational but it is gravely mistaken. This symbol will motivate, inspire, captivate, reverberate through history and demonstrate conclusively that the human race is mature enough to reach into the stars as well as to understand its own nature.

From: Charlotte To: Daniel

Nearly 40 years on since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, why have we not ventured any further? It was a moment where, indeed, it did inspire the world, as you so avidly argue, to conquer the frontiers of space.  Yet, this is still the image that remains for us to venerate on a pedestal as our greatest achievement in space nearly four decades on. I think the answers are two-fold:

Firstly, the unsuccessful pursuits of manned missions have demonstrated that so far, our technology aboard space shuttles can only take us so far. The extra hindrance of having to support humans in space means that we have to take the essentials that are readily available on Earth such as air, water and food; all of which adds extra weight that limits the altitude the shuttles are able to reach. Consequently, both they and the International Space Station have to be maintained at a low orbit around the Earth: hardly the adventurous lengths that you clearly long for. In fact, 36 years since the astronaut John Glen first orbited the Earth, on his return to space he was only 80 miles higher. Therefore, it is quite clear why the moon has not become the platform to new worlds that everyone believed and dreamed it could be in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, manned missions in the foreseeable future will be highly unlikely to provide the ‘source of inspiration’ you seem to long for.

Secondly, I believe the answer to this motion has already been established by NASA already.  As highlighted, the pointlessness of manned missions gives us minimal reward for our endeavours to discover the mysteries of space. These answers have in fact been provided by the many hundreds of probes, robots and satellites that have ‘boldly gone where no man has gone before’, or is likely to! Admittedly, the disasters of the Challenger and Columbia missions have overshadowed the two or three probes that have failed in space. However, don’t both examples emphasise that our technology is not infallible in space - technology we are so reliant on. If a machine malfunctions, no one dies.

Unfortunately, the things you desperately seek to revel in, we all end up mourning. We should not continue to send up hugely talented astronauts into space, and all the while continue to breathe a sigh of relief each time they return home safety; accidents in space should be an anomaly and not a possibility. In fact, it baffles me that you take pride in the challenge of putting people into space when it seems the real challenge it keeping them alive. Which missions such as Apollo 13 have demonstrated.

The clear facts of the matter are that unmanned missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope remain the most successful pursuit in space. It is such exploits which are of benefit to humanity and technology. Don’t you think inventors will take greater pride in venturing into new galaxies with machines, perhaps landing on new planets than sending man a few miles into the atmosphere?

Furthermore, I don’t believe today’s ‘bland political climate’ has blunted my evaluation of the situation. In fact, I worry that instead of space being something that can be universally appreciated, ‘ownership’ will be adopted by those who get there first: the ‘first generation to extend our human civilization to the rest of the universe’. Space will become yet another thing for nations to compete over rather than collaborate; all will be chasing glory instead of advancement.

It’s time we moved on from the old-fashioned attitudes of Kennedy: ‘no nation which expects to be leader of the other nations get expect to stay behind in the space race’, and instead bring together the world’s top brains to delve further in space than ever before with unmanned missions. Perhaps a viable solution also is to create a ‘world bank’ similar to the IMF to fund space exploration, not allowing the American NASA programmes to dominate and exclude the rest of the world.

Finally, let’s just look at the facts. Doesn’t it make sense to approach space exploration logically and rationally? The knowledge that machines can offer us are endless; just think of all the things they have achieved already: they have reached Mercury, Venus, Mars, the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, Pluto, smashed into comets, brought home space dust and are this very minute venturing millions of miles into deep space, and knowing that all of them are stamped with the symbolic words, ‘Made on Earth’, now that’s inspirational.

We know we are alone in our solar system, but surely not the universe? That is something that only machines can tell us.


Daniel Green is studying Maths, Further Maths, Physics and History at Barton Court Grammar School and has a place to read Engineering at Cambridge University in 2009.

Charlotte Blair will be studying European Social and Political Studies with French at UCL next year having just completed her A Levels in French, History, English Literature and Sociology.

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