Topic Guide
Space Exploration:
“Man, not machines, should explore space”
Following President Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation Programme- NASA’s human spaceflight
project that aimed to take astronauts back to the moon - many are wondering which of the new space-faring
nations will next land humans on the lunar surface. In India, the success of Chandrayaan I, the country’s first
unmanned lunar probe, has brought forward an announcement from the Indian Space Research
Organisation (ISRO) that it will launch its first manned mission to space by 2017 – exciting both praise and
criticism in a country whose space ambitions have grown markedly in the past few years. China’s human
spaceflight programme is also progressing steadily, with the country now set to launch three space stations
between 2011 and 2015 and, if funding permits, to send its own crewed mission to the moon as early as
2020. But despite the exciting entry of new players in the human space drama, the uncertainty caused by
America’s change of direction in policy has caused debate and disorientation within the wider space
community. Indeed some ask why, in the midst of a protracted global economic crisis here on earth, we are
thinking of outer space at all? Space exploration thus stands at a crossroads. At the centre of this debate is
the question of whether space exploration should involve humans or machines. The decisions made in the
next few years will affect space policy for generations to come.
The space exploration debate in context:
What factors have driven space exploration?
Exploration and discovery have been essential to the progress of human civilization, and are at the centre of
the American ideal and its frontier spirit. However, the immediate context of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was
a space race against the Soviet Union in which sending a man to the Moon was a way of asserting national
superiority in the Cold War. Although some have identified a new space race between China, India and
Japan, today's geopolitical context is very different- driven less by ideological differences than national
prestige, economic competition, and some say military factors. Whilst surveys have found a core of public
support for space exploration, there is also widespread agreement that the American and European space
programmes have suffered from a lack of direction. The dismantling of the American Constellation
Programme has led some to argue that this decision by the Obama administration signals America’s
‘downhill slide to mediocrity’. But in India attitudes to manned space travel have also changed. Previously
Vikram Sarabai’s famous argument that the country had no ambition for space exploration, but only an
interest in the application of advanced technology to the real problems of man and society, was the guiding
principle of its space programme. Today however, the relative success of the recent programmes has
propelled India’s ambitions further, with the ISRO’s commitment to a programme of manned space travel
enjoying significant political support. But some question whether money spent on space might be better put
to earthly purposes. In a country where 800 million live on less than $2 a day, some argue, India’s space
ambitions are a vanity project that serve to distract attention from the real problems it faces. In the future,
should we pursue ambitious and inspirational manned missions or concentrate on more realistic and
scientifically focussed unmanned missions?
Are manned missions inefficient and excessively risky?
The higher safety standards required for manned flight, together with the resources like water, air and food
that need to be provided, mean that a shuttle mission can be 25 times more expensive than sending a
satellite into orbit. Unmanned landers have touched down on Mars for $250 million. Estimates of what a
manned mission to Mars could cost range from $30 to $500 billion, although the projected cost of such an
expedition would be significantly less from India. There would also be many more challenges to overcome
than in a normal shuttle flight, ranging from the time involved – around three years – to radiation from solar
storms and possible collisions with space debris. In China and India, many people are of the opinion that the
allocation of resources will be further challenged by poverty, corruption and development-related issues,
whilst others argue that beyond national prestige there is little to commend an Indian manned mission to the
moon when it is unlikely to break scientific ground..
Are manned missions a scientific priority?
Pursuing human space exploration diverts resources away from other non-space related scientific fields that
some argue are more deserving - although manned space flight has led to a number of spin-off technologies.
Within the space exploration community, some argue that most scientific progress comes from unmanned
Topic Guide
missions that focus on the most compelling and answerable scientific questions. Historically, India’s interest
in space has always rested on the economic and social development of the country, its notable successes
now making it a world leader in remote sensing and telecommunications. If one thinks of the most exciting
recent developments in space science – the Hubble Space Telescope, the comet probe Deep Impact, the
Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn – they are all unmanned projects. In early 2006, scientists were excited
by the return of the Stardust capsule with samples of cometary dust, the New Horizons mission saw a probe
launched to Pluto, and Chandrayaan-1 found evidence of large quantities of water on the moon’s surface.
But the ISRO’s commitment to a manned mission to the moon not only signals a shift in direction, but also
appears to be propelled by an altogether different imperative – to ‘take leadership of manned spaceflight’
and improve India’s standing in the world. Should resources be concentrated on bolstering niche expertise
rather than ambitious lunar programmes that re-invent the wheel?
Why send humans to space?
For advocates of human space exploration the debate goes beyond science, and the issue of whether robots
could replace humans in performing scientific experiments, and involves what the scientific impulse says
about humanity. A Mars mission, for example, would be a statement of the value of human civilization,
something that is valuable in itself rather than for the scientific discoveries that it produces. It represents the
sort of challenge that a society requires in order to advance and is part of humanity’s progress towards
becoming a multi-planet space-faring species. Some see the fact we have failed to continue pushing forward
the boundaries of human space exploration as a sign that we have given up on reaching for the stars.
One giant leap backwards for mankind?
Is manned space flight and the desire to ‘boldly go’ into the unknown a heroic symbol of human aspiration in
a world that has become obsessively concerned with eliminating all possible risks? Or is it rather the case
that these ideas are outdated, that we should look for romance elsewhere and that seeking to recapture the
spirit of exploration would interfere with scientific priorities? Should China, India , Japan, Brazil, Taiwan, the
Koreas, Kenya or any country with ambitions in space, learn from the mistakes of the Cold War space race
and stake their prestige on something more tangible and cost-effective? Does manned space flight still
inspire the public, or, by continuing to pursue it despite the dangers, do we risk discrediting the entire space
Topic Guide
Essential reading:
The pull of gravity Clive Cookson Financial Times 18 March 2010
Debating manned moon missions Kenneth R Fletcher Smithsonian Magazine July 2008
India’s Space Program Vincent G. Sabathier and G. Ryan Faith Center for Strategic and International
Studies 25 January 2008
Getting India into Orbit Saswato R Das Times of India 13 May 2010
To boldly go Editorial Times of India 23 July 2009
India should be reaching for the stars Stuart Simpson The Times 13 October 2008
Is space exploration worth the cost? David Livingston Space Review 21 January 2008
India's Space Agency Proposes Manned Spaceflight Program K.S. Jayaraman 10 November
Retreating from the final frontier Henry Joy McCracken Spiked 03 August 2005
The human explorer Robert Zubrin The New Atlantis 05 February 2004
New Moon Rising: America Abandons Manned Lunar Missions, India Embraces Them
Jeremy Kahn The Faster Times 1 February 2010
India’s moon mission Raghu Political Affairs Magazine 27 October 2008
An interview with Steven Weinberg Sam Dinkin Space Review 14 January 2008
Let’s forget Nasa’s fancy ideas Martin Rees The Times 14 February 2008
India's small step into space Peter Bond The Independent 27 September 2006
Nasa and its small, sideways step for mankind Tim Hames The Times 08 August 2005,,1070-1726288,00.html
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The virtual astronaut Robert Park The New Atlantis 05 February 2004
Further reading:
Lost in Space Michael Hanlon Blog Dail Mail 31 May 2010
Stephen Hawkings: The Future of Space – Manned vs Robotic Missions? Casey Kazan The Daily Galaxy 7
March 2010
The Real Space Race Is In Asia Mary Hennock Newsweek 20 September 2008
Indian Space Research Organization
Key terms:
Chandrayaan I
Hubble Space Telescope
International Space Station
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Space exploration BBC News
Exploring Mars BBC News In Depth
New Scientist Space New Scientist
President Obama’s vision for space exploration Part 1 G. Ryan Faith The Space Review 19 April 2010
President Obama’s vision for space exploration Part 2 G. Ryan Faith The Space Review 26 April 2010
The Future of Human Spaceflight Space, Policy, and Society Research Group Massachusetts Institute of
Technology December 2008
Explore the Solar System BBC
Remembering the human cost of exploring space CNN Crossfire Transcript 04 February 2003
Space exploration special report Guardian,15710,1392183,00.html
The Mars Society
Why we explore Stephen J Dick NASA 14 October 2004
The vision for space exploration NASA February 2004 (pdf)
Manned space missions
Apollo 11 mission
Discovery mission
Space Shuttle Columbia
Unmanned space missions
Chandayaan I
Chandayaan II
Phoenix Mars Lander
Deep Impact
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
New horizons
Topic Guide
In the news:
Veteran astronaut begs NASA to keep old shuttle Guardian 21 June 2010
Future of manned space flight ABC Net10 June 2010
Indian space project in disarray after a series of setbacks The National 1 June 2010
Shuttle Atlantis completes its last mission The Hindu 26 May 2010
Barack Obama unveils new vision for Nasa space flight Guardian 15 April 2010
India set to launch manned mission, says ISRO Chairman NDTV 14 April 2010
Ice deposits found on moon’s pole BBC News 2 March 2010
Politicians’ fight to keep America’s moon mission alive Guardian 1 February 2010
Virgin unveils SpaceShipTwo for tourists Guardian 27 December 2009
Russia launches manned spacecraft to ISS China Daily 21 December 2009
Underfunding shackles Nasa vision BBC News 9 September 2009
Nation strives to launch labs China Daily 1 September 2009
ISRO planning mission to Mars The Hindu 31 August 2009
A new space race Guardian 24 February 2009
Countdown to moon mission begins Times of India 20 October 2008
China's first spacewalk team feted with parade Gillian Wong Associated Press 30 September 2008
Asia’s race for space MWC news 29 September 2008
Water found on Mars, Nasa scientists confirm Daily Telegraph 31 July 2008
Nasa will struggle when shuttle retires says boss Guardian 26 July 2008
Scientists plan to bring back rocks – and perhaps even life – from Mars Guardian 14 July 2008