Debate: What is the Purpose of Space Exploration? The Case for SettlementJanuary 9, 2016January 10, 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 space settlement.

Below are the opening remarks for the purpose of space exploration as space settlement.


The purpose of this debate is to discuss the ultimate goal of the space program. Why are we spending billions of dollars to build space stations and send robotic probes to the planets? What is it ultimately all for? If space exploration is ultimately for nothing, then all of those naysays are right and we’re just wasting time and money. As an aerospace engineering student and passionate space enthusiast, I know this is not true.


Astronaut Bruce McCandless. Credit: NASA/JPL.

I argue that the ultimate goal of the human space program regardless of mission or nation is space settlement: the idea of humans living and working permanently in space. By permanently, I don’t mean permanent occupation as is the case with the International Space Station, but people living their entire lives, and eventually raising children off Earth. I am not going to talk about the engineering specifics of how this might happen. Countless authors have written about the how of space settlement, thus I am more interested in the why.

Scientific knowledge and technological capability are changing constantly. Nuking the Martian polar caps to make the planet habitable might seem like the way to go today, but could be made completely irrelevant by a new discovery tomorrow. The reasons as to why we should even be talking about settling Mars or any other place in space should be more universal. They should represent a set of values and aspirations most people would agree to. Over the course of this debate I hope to convey to you what some of these reasons are and why.

The main argument for settling space is simple: survival. Nothing lasts forever. The Universe operated perfectly fine for billions of years before our species first evolved and could keep going on for trillions of years more whether we are in it or not. It is as Carl Sagan would say, a “universe not made for us.” A stray asteroid or a gamma ray burst – common events on the cosmic scale – could kill us all without warning at any time. One only has to look at the fossils in the university’s Museum of Natural History to understand that mass extinctions happen with frightening regularity throughout Earth’s history. Humanity, in our effort to tame some of nature’s destructive forces, has become an agent of doom in its own right. It is very well possible that the next mass extinction will be on our own hands. If the direst predictions of climatologists are to be believed, we may already be in the middle of one. It is simple to see that living on a single planet is not sustainable in the long run. The world has died many times before, it will die again.


Mars. Credit: JPL/NASA.

I think there is something innately precious about human life. We are creative beings, endowed with the capacity to dream. No other species that we know of ponders its own existence or imagines a better life. We express our hopes and aspirations in everything we do, through stirring art, provocative music, the tireless work of a scientist working on a problem, a mother’s loving kiss. Not everyone agrees, we have our arguments, fights, wars, but also our compromises, and reconciliations. We are the only species that is willing to fight and die for ideas which is something unique in its own right. We owe it to ourselves to continue the story of humanity, our story, for as long as we can. This is only possible if we spread human life to as many places in the universe as possible so that any one catastrophe, natural or artificial, could not erase us from history.

There are those who argue that the ultimate purpose of the space program is science and that a large human presence in space undermines this. They say that humans would contaminate the universe, strip mining it of resources and doing great harm to any extraterrestrial life, and that much of the universe should be “hands off” to everything but specially sterilized robots conducting minimum impact scientific research.

While I believe that learning more about our universe is a worthy goal; learning about the past is meaningless unless one has a future. It is unreasonable to assume that we will have the same attitudes towards back contamination and planetary protection given the pace of scientific discovery. A single new finding on the range of habitable conditions could completely change our idea of what do with places like Mars. Furthermore, there will always be plenty of lifeless rocks, the Moon and asteroids for us to utilize and inhabit. For these worlds I think that humans would be a welcome improvement: I would rather have a universe of people than a universe of rocks. If there are people who think that even lifeless rocks are going too far and want to cordon off certain parts of the universe as “parks” safe from human tampering, then so be it. The debate as to how and how not to disturb the universe is part of the human story we would be going into space to preserve in the first place.


A concept sketch of a Martian greenhouse for planet settlement. Credit: NASA.

Lastly, there are those who say that settling space is a noble idea, but that it is ultimately an idea for the future, and that there are problems on Earth that need to be addressed first before we can justify the expense of such an enterprise. To them, I say upholding basic human dignity and preventing unnecessary suffering due to poverty, war, oppression, and other age old ills should always be of utmost importance. What I refuse to believe is that there is this zero sum game between improving life on Earth and expanding it beyond. If anything we’re going out there to make things better here.

To live bound to a single planet is to be forever limited. Our entire history has been a reaction to the finite size and resources of a planet. Because the universe is practically infinite in all directions scarcity is a non-issue for a spacefaring civilization. In just our own solar system there are Mt. Everest sized chunks of every raw material you could possibly want; water, precious metals, hydrocarbons, and nearly limitless energy as long as the sun shines. Most importantly there is room. Room for humanity to expand beyond the confines of such economic limitations. As the economist John Maynard Keynes proposed, when free of scarcity humanity will at last, . The human race started on Earth, but human history begins when we go into space.

-By Rob Gitten, SEDS-UM Member

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