Space exploration

Anybody with an interest in space exploration has known, pretty much ever since

the Columbia first launched in 1981, that the space shuttle was, scientifically

speaking, a white elephant. It was designed as a workhorse capable of taking

large loads into space on a regular basis, but it never came close to fulfilling

that destiny. Desperate to justify the shuttle’s existence, NASA started getting

its astronauts to perform scientific experiments in space. On the Columbia’s

last mission, the experiments included taking photos of dust and watching how

bugs get on in zero gravity. None of this was interesting or important, and

no one even pretended that it was.

So when people say

that the space shuttle ought to be scrapped because unmanned space flight is

cheaper and more scientifically useful, they’re basically doing little more

than repeating what’s been said for decades. They’re also missing the point:

the shuttle was never designed primarily as a scientific research device. Whatever

scientific knowledge that can be gleaned from spaceflight is an ancillary benefit.

I’m reminded of my sister, sunning herself (24 hours a day) in Antarctica right

now, on a hugely expensive scientific project which, while useful, is only

funded because of the UK’s geostrategic claims on the continent. Britain needs

a presence there, and scientists are a great way of establishing that presence

without any kind of belligerence. Remember that just as most astronauts come from the

military, Antarctic bases are usually run by military officers.

The reason why the Columbia disaster was huge news all over the world was not

because seven people died, and it was certainly not because the disaster might

have marked the end of any project of scientific research. Rather, humanity

identifies with the desire to conquer new territories, to explore our world

and its environs to the very limit of our abilities. That a man has walked on

the moon causes wonder even today; that a man hasn’t walked on the moon in decades

is evidence of the fact that doing so is of only the most marginal scientific

interest. When Columbia broke up on re-entry, the dreams of millions of people

around the world crashed back down to earth with it. (Think of when Lady Di

died: people mourned not an individual death, so much as everything she stood


But just because the space shuttle is a powerful symbol of America’s strength

and humanity’s quest for the heavens is no reason not to scrap it. The best

piece about the shuttle written in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster is

a short

essay in Time magazine by Gregg Easterbrook, titled The Space Shuttle Must

Be Stopped. Easterbrook clearly lays out why the shuttle is a flying anachronism,

worth billions of dollars to what used to be called the "military-industrial

complex" but fundamentally an answer without a question. You want manned

space flight? Fine. Safer, cheaper space vehicles could be built if the space

shuttle programme were scrapped, but it’s got so much political and economic

inertia that its abolition and replacement is almost impossible.

It’s pretty hard to imagine a bigger waste of money than the space shuttle.

Each launch costs half a billion dollars, a hundred times more than the launches

were originally meant to cost once the programme was up and running. Its primary

purpose is to build the International Space Station, whose own primary purpose

is to provide something for the space shuttle to do. The space station has already

cost $35 billion; the cost of its crew’s bottled water alone is almost half

a million dollars a day.

The really annoying thing is that all of this money-burning is actually hindering,

not helping, space exploration. If we’re interested in exploration at all, what

we need is an easy, cheap and safe way of getting into orbit. The shuttle, of

course, is none of the above. If the US government were to put its efforts into

developing such a transportation system, then it’s even possible that the private

sector would step in and help take things to the next level. But the space shuttle

and the space station are like huge vacuums, sucking up all available government

funds, and leaving nothing left over to modernise or rationalise humanity’s

adventures in space.

The US, it seems, learned nothing from the Challenger disaster in 1986. It

kept on running the shuttle programme regardless of its obsolescence, and has

essentially spent the last 17 years marching down a dead end. It’s time to stop

throwing good money after bad, and to start asking why we’re doing this at all.

The half-finished space station can be kept as a memorial to the hubris of the

USA and the avarice of its contractors; the shuttle itself, like the Apollo

programme, can then be remembered as something which sparked the imagination

of billions rather than as a white elephant with a nasty habit of killing astronauts.

The quest to put men into space is noble. The desire to keep the space shuttle

flying is not.

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11 Responses to Space exploration

  1. Chloe says:

    And after we get rid of the space shuttle, let’s work on the albatross of motor vehicles!!!!

  2. Michelle says:

    But don’t we need the space station for the idiot box, man??? What about my parent’s Direct TV?

  3. Danica says:

    Can you please send me some more information about space exploration and how giving money to support it will benefit for us. I am in grade 8 and i am doing an essay on how money can be better spent in space exploration, and i need some imformation.

    Thanks alot


  4. roberto says:

    how dare you.

    Space travel can better all our lives by finding cures to many deseases, such as parkinsons or MS. they are not testing bugs but testing with test tubes, i agree that they could be more cautious with the space ships, and that it was their fault for it destroying.

    Buy however, if we keep spending money into our space program we will finnaly be able to beat cancer and MS of even sars now.

    I hope you can change your opinion.


    Roberto Diaz

    P.S. if i was there id slap you good

  5. Georgio says:

    I hate you and your site. If I ever saw you in real life I’d have my way with you in a dark alley behind a dumpster!

    Love always;

    georgio Garcia

  6. person says:

    half a million for water a

    day !!!what about the people dying of thrist in africa!!

  7. Catherine Chan says:

    Could you tell us more on why billions of dollars should be spent on space exploration. I’m in grade 6, and we’re doing a bebating.

  8. Joe Merkley says:

    Thank you for finally writing what I’ve thought my entire life. Though as a kid I thought it was cool to go into space, I now know it is ridiculous just to chase these dreams when all of the billions of dollars could be better spent. The question I’ve thought my whole life is how can they continue to be ninnies and go into space while children still have to die and we still have to have places like St. Jude’s hospital, still have homeless veterans who are forgotten, and still have people who try, but since insufficiently funded, fail at finding cures for diseases which claim millions of lives. It is a beautiful thing, space, but we shouldn’t abandon the mothership. Once we have earth perfected, then we should go out of our home. Until then, we are still residents, here.

  9. annonymous says:

    Billions of dollars a year are spent on space exploration. That really adds up. It’s money that could be used for worthier causes. There are people starving here in the United states, not to mention all over the world, and so much of the money that could go towards helping them is being wasted on space. We should focus on Earth’s problems before we go exploring the galaxy. What’s out there that’s so important that we have to spend tons of money to send people on dangerous missions to space, when we could be helping people here. I don’t understand why people are so obsessed with exploring the great unknown. There’s nothing up there that can cure cancer or feed the hungry. And there’s nothing on Mars that isn’t on Earth except air that isn’t even fit to breathe. People can’t live on Mars unless they’re planning on keeping us in bubbles or something. It just doesn’t make any sense.

  10. Courtney Dee says:

    Alright, This topic is ubsurd. Due to the fact that we are all pointing fingers at NASA for spending its money is ridiculous. For instance, look at what we do and the generations to come. Most likely all of you posting a comment has never once sent money to a country in struggle. Instead you are all worried about your own lifestyle and expenses. If you think about it, we are all to blame. I also have never sent money to another country, but when i am out of University i hope to travel and stop this stupidity man has left us with. You can not blame this act on NASA. Think about whats out there. Half of you probably have no idea how much could be out there. Our Universe is huge. But thats not the point, the point is that we as a humanity were all taught to point our fingers, when in reality its pointing right back at us all. If ever we were to all send 10$ a month to a poor country, then think of the possiblities we could injust. Only, we are all to materialized and stuck on our selfs and lifestyles to do such a thing. Life should not be taken for granted, and you are all doing such. The real question is not why is NASA wasteing our money,..its why are we wasteing our money?

  11. Dale says:


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