Debate: What is the Purpose of Space Exploration? The Case for ScienceJanuary 9, 2016January 9, 2016Ariel

 What is the fundamental purpose of space exploration?

This question was posed to two of our SEDS-UM members who approached the question from extremely different perspectives. From their discussion, two schools of thought arose:

  1. The purpose of space exploration is the pursuit of science.
  2. The purpose of space exploration is colonization.

Below are the opening remarks for the purpose of space exploration as the pursuit of scientific knowledge.


For those of us immersed in aerospace culture, space exploration is far more than a profession: it is a calling – an ideology that compels some to dedicate decades of their lives to executing but a single mission. It is a goal that fuels feverish design cycles and exceptional ingenuity.


Image of star post-supernova from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: JPL/NASA

My opponent argues that we must explore space with the intent of colonizing other planets. However, colonization cannot be the primary reason why we choose to explore beyond our Earth. In light of economic, political and philosophical considerations, we see that space exploration must be based on one core theme: the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Economically, space exploration is a black hole, at least in the near-term. According to NASA Johnson Space Center, it will take at least $500 billion to place the first crew of 4-6 astronauts on Mars, taking all fundamental research, transportation and infrastructural developments into account. The cost of supporting an entire colony on Mars would be astronomically higher.

Who would pay for this? We know that the private sector runs on quarterly profits and annual revenues; thus, developing a space colony which might not yield profit for decades is not justifiable from a free market perspective. Though ambitious businessmen like Elon Musk promise to develop new-and-improved rockets, consider the need for additional components like deep-space habitats, Martian infrastructure, surface rovers, and the like. We cannot reasonably rely on a few eccentric billionaires to provide all necessary funding.

What about the government? NASA’s Orion program is currently our most well developed plan for sending man to Mars. This program centers on the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule, which received a combined budget of $2.5 billion for 2016. According to Chris Kraft, a founder of the agency’s Mission Control operation:

“The SLS-based strategy is unaffordable, by definition, since the costs of developing, let alone operating, the SLS within a fixed or declining budget has crowded out funding for critical elements needed for any real deep space human exploration program.”


Expanded view of NASA’s proposed Space Launch System for sending astronauts to Mars. Credit: JPL/NASA

Clearly, if we establish the objective of space exploration as purely colonization, it is fiscally unfeasible. Neither the public nor private sector can shoulder its burden, threatening the aerospace industry with stagnation if funds cannot be procured.

Space exploration for the purpose of pursuing scientific knowledge, which utilizes robots and orbiters for collecting planetary information, resolves this issue. NASA’s latest Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), cost a total of $2.5 billion. This rover has provided invaluable information concerning the presence of organic compounds and water on Mars. If we are to extrapolate the cost of MSL to other missions, we can see that dozens of robotic missions can be executed for the cost of sending the first crew to Mars.

Enough about money. What about politics? Humans have a tendency to argue over property and resource distribution. If humans view space merely as a property to colonize or as a resource to acquire, disputes among competing countries and companies will invariably follow. Furthermore, due to its prohibitive costs, colonization would implicitly be restricted to countries that can afford it; this in turn would alienate smaller, less established nations that cannot be participants. To suggest that mankind would unilateral invest in establishing a colony on Mars is in flagrant denial of the reality of our world’s political history and complex dynamic.

On the other hand, pursuit of scientific knowledge is an objective that benefits all of humanity. Spin-off technology from space exploration, such as microwaves, mammograms and fire alarms, strongly benefit terrestrial life across the globe, empowering even those countries that cannot directly invest in this research. There is a political purity and transcendence to understanding our place in the universe, one that avoids the complications of claiming land.


“Selfie” taken by the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Credit: JPL/NASA.

Philosophically, I find the notion that man is entitled to colonize the universe morally repugnant in the same way that it was unethical for pioneers to feel claim to the land of an indigenous people. We do not know that we, human beings, are alone in this universe. In light of the literally unfathomable amount of planets in our universe, this outcome seems exceedingly unlikely. Thus, it is incredibly arrogant for us to view the universe as a resource waiting to be exploited for our sole and complete use.

Thus, we see that the pursuit of scientific knowledge, not colonizing other worlds, must be our fundamental objective.

-By Ari Sandberg, SEDS-UM Member

Click here to check out the other side of the argument: that the purpose of space exploration is space settlement.