To boldly go: what is the point of space exploration?

Sunday 19 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

When Neil Armstrong made his first steps on the moon on 21 July 1969, he was watched by over 500million people. Many stayed up through the night to witness it, and those who were children at the time often recall being woken up to see the momentous occasion. Today, numerous scientists, engineers, writers and others cite witnessing the moon landings as an inspiring moment that influenced their choice of career. While achieved by Americans, the positive reaction was international – there was a sense that what had been achieved was on behalf of all mankind, and had opened up a sense of unlimited possibilities.

But it is the moon landings’ backdrop of the Cold War space race that perhaps dominates how we view them today. Increasingly, we are given to viewing the Apollo missions as political, with dubious scientific merit – certainly, at least, some argue that the money could have been better spent on less glamorous but more worthy missions like probes or telescopes. Those who are even less charitable see the moon landings as a colossal vanity project, wasting millions that could have been spent alleviating problems here on Earth.

Today, the worth of manned space missions is under discussion again, with the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander seen as the start of a push to place taikonauts on the moon within a decade. India has followed suit, making its own plans for a manned landing. The Americans, too, have begun to talk again about returning to the lunar surface. More generally, manned spaceflight seems to be coming back into fashion, as exemplified by the rise to celebrity status of Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield.

Are we witnessing the return of the space race? Are these plans any more than just propaganda missions, aimed at projecting the power of rising countries like India and China? Do the missions have enough scientific merit, and should we celebrate them even if the benefits are slight? Should we have gone to the moon in the first place, or should we have been focusing on more earthly concerns?

Watch the debate:

Listen to the debate:

Speakers
Professor Ian Crawford
professor of planetary science and astrobiology, Birkbeck College, University of London

Ashley Dove-Jay
PhD researcher, University of Bristol; programme member on NASA/ESA-related projects

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Dr Jill Stuart
visiting fellow, London School of Economics; editor-in-chief, Space Policy

Will Whitehorn
chairman, Transport Systems Catapult and Speed Communications; former president, Virgin Galactic

Chair
Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
David Perks founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory
Recommended readings
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Engineers from the space agency managed to produce tiny amounts of thrust using a microwave engine design that could turn space travel on its head

James Vincent, Independent, 4 August 2014

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