The Big Question: Is manned space exploration a waste of time and money?

The space shuttle Discovery blasted off from Florida on Tuesday. This 13-day mission is in effect a second safety test for the entire US shuttle programme, after the loss of Columbia in February 2003. In July 2005, Discovery carried out a first post-disaster mission, amid lingering worries over possible damage at lift-off from fragments of foam insulation that hit the craft's heat resistant tiles. The launch appears to have been a complete success, with no sign of significant damage. It is thus more likely that the shuttle programme will continue until its scheduled retirement in 2010.

The fact remains, however, that man's presence in space, which started with Yuri Gagarin in 1961, reached its climax just eight years later when Apollo XI carried men to the moon, 250,000 miles from earth. The main point of the latest Discovery mission, at a modest altitude of 200 miles, is to test the ability to make in-flight repairs, and above all to ensure the seven-man crew returns safely.

Is there an alternative to manned space exploration?

Very much so. Each shuttle launch costs around $1.3bn (£720m), but the most important exploration today is carried out by unmanned craft, costing far less per individual mission. Nasa's most productive programme is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has provided invaluable insights into fundamental problems of astrophysics- Hubble's Ultra Deep Field is the most sensitive astronomical optical image ever taken. Hubble is approaching the end of its life, but a "Next Generation Space Telescope" is due to be launched in 2010. The Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rovers have also been huge successes, continuing to send back important data about the red planet to scientists.

What's the problem with sending people into space?

Quite simply, space is an extremely hostile environment for humans. Everything we need - food, water, the air we breathe - must be taken with us. These factors limit the length of any mission, while the sheer weight of such basic items significantly reduces the useful payload of shuttle missions. Discovery and its surviving sisters, Atlantis and Endeavour, are hopelessly limited vehicles, capable of reaching only low earth orbit. For that reason, the International Space Station (ISS) which they service must fly in the same low and relatively unproductive orbit. And as the fate of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 constantly remind, manned space travel is dangerous. Fourteen astronauts died in the two missions.

Are there any advantages?

The case for manned exploration boils down to the eternal argument over human versus artificial intelligence. Computer-controlled robotic missions can gather vast quantities of data. But they are less good at evaluating it. They cannot make the on-the-spot, creative judgements on which avenues should be pursued and which abandoned. Just like chess-playing computers, robots waste time and energy evaluating possibilities, when a human on the spot would instantly know whether a line of exploration was worthwhile.

Furthermore, the publicity given to human space disasters masks the much higher failure rate of unmanned missions. Take unmanned probes to Mars; since 1960 roughly two out of three have failed. Challenger and Columbia notwithstanding, manned missions have had a 90 per cent success rate. And nothing gets people excited about space exploration - and makes them willing to pay for it - like dramatic human moments.

Do we need a permanent manned space station?

Increasingly, the view among scientists is No. The International Space Station (ISS) programme - a joint venture of Nasa, and the space agencies of Russia, Canada, the EU and Japan - may cost a final $110bn, even though the 18 shuttle missions needed to bring it to completion may never take place, leaving the station manned by a mere skeleton crew. Dependent on the shuttle (which itself has cost $145bn over 30 years), the ISS must operate in relatively low orbit, limiting its possibilities. Another shuttle disaster would probably spell the end for the station, even though the five partners have pledged to complete it by 2010.

None other than Michael Griffin, chief administrator of Nasa, has implied that the shuttle and the ISS were mistakes. "It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path," he has said. "We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can."

Some argue that little of major scientific value has been accomplished by the station. Its main value, critics say, is as a vehicle of international co-operation in troubled political times - or as the ultimate in exotic tourism. Already two individuals have paid $20m to be taken up to the ISS, although the grimiest flophouse on mother earth is Ritz-like by comparison.

So what is the future of space exploration?

Man may return to the moon and one day reach Mars. But machines will set the pace - if only for economic reasons. While Nasa looks for human exploits to rekindle enthusiasm for space, its European equivalent, the ESA, spends only one eighth of its budget on manned space projects. The spectacular successes of the two Mars Rovers cost less than $800m. In 2005, the US orbiter Cassini sent home sensational images of Saturn, while a European "suicide" probe has landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. A Nasa craft has been deliberately collided with a comet, while another has brought a cargo of stardust back to earth. And other spacecraft are heading for Mercury, Venus and Pluto, while Voyagers One and Two, launched in 1977, head for interstellar space.

Should manned space exploration continue?

Yes...

* When it comes to exploration, people are better than machines at recognising what is of interest

* Men are needed to make repairs in space, such as those which extended the useful life of the Hubble telescope

* The drama of watching men and women explore new worlds appeals to something basic in human nature

No...

* The costs of sending humans into space far exceeds any benefits gained by employing them rather than machines

* Humans need so much in the way of supplies - oxygen, warmth, protection, etc - that the extra weight forbids going to most places

* Space travel is intrinsically dangerous, and it better to lose machinery in the inevitable accidents than human lives

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Implementation and Support Consultant

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A consultant is required to pro...

Recruitment Genius: Office Assistant

£12675 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Assistant is required...

Recruitment Genius: Lead Software Developer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler / Probate Assistant

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler/Probate ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn