The International Space Station.  Image Credit:  NASA

The Value of Space Exploration

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Read any debate about space exploration, and this question will invariably come up. “Why should we be spending money exploring space when there are so many problems here on Earth that we need to solve first?” It’s a tricky one. I’ve got a simple answer; space exploration is awesome. Come on, think of space ships traveling to other worlds – that’s really cool.

Okay, perhaps I’ve got too simplistic an argument, so I turned to the astrosphere and posed the question to other space bloggers. Here’s what they had to say…

Alun Salt – Archeoastronomy

Historical materials suggest that there wasn’t such sharp division between earth and sky in the ancient world. Instead there was one cosmos. Space exploration reveals that while there isn’t a divine link between the heavens and the earth, it is true that what happens up there can affect what happens down here. It would be useful to know about the cosmos, rather than just be a victim of it.

Mark Whittington – Curmudgeons Corner

What is the value of space exploration? Inherent in exploration of all types is the opportunities that it opens up to the people doing the exploring. For some it is the opportunity to gain new knowledge. For others it is the opportunity to create wealth and expand commerce. For still others the opportunity lies is trancendence, to grow spirtually and to gain a greater appreciation of the universe.

Alan Boyle – MSNBC Cosmic Log

I’ve been getting a healthy dose of the American revolution lately, between watching HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries and reading David McCullough’s “1776,” and that may be the reason I’m thinking of this in terms of pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” rather than just thinking in terms of paying taxes. I like to think of the reasons for making that pledge, in terms of the push to outer space, as the five E’s (plus examples): exploration (to the moon and Mars), entertainment (cool Hubble pictures), energy (space solar power and asteroid mines), empire building (defending the high frontier) and extinction avoidance (fending off space rocks, and getting off this rock). Check out the log item for more.

Steinn Sigurdsson – Dynamics of Cats

Because: we look out, and wonder, and explore;

and we do what little we can on the margin of our busy lives to explore the bigger universe, today;

and that is one of the things that makes life worth living,

and gives us hope that the future can be better, for us and for future generations.

Ethan Siegel – Starts With a Bang

This is like asking why we should spend money on making our city better when there are so many problems here in our own homes. Or why we should spend money on understanding our whole world when there are so many problems here in our own country. Space is something that we are not only a part of, but that encompasses and affects all of us. Learning about the grandest scales of our lives — about the things that are larger than us and will go on relatively unaffected by whatever we do — that has value! And it might not have a value that I can put a price tag on, but in terms of unifying everyone, from people in my city to people in a foreign country to people or intelligences on other planets or in other galaxies, space exploration is something that is the great equalizer. And the knowledge, beauty, and understanding that we get from it is something that one person, group, or nation doesn’t get to keep to itself; what we learn about the Universe can be, should be, and if we do our jobs right, will be equally available to everyone, everywhere. This is where our entire world came from, and this is the abyss our entire world will eventually return to. And learning about that, exploring that, and gaining even a small understanding of that, has the ability to give us a perspective that we can never gain just by looking insularly around our little blue rock.

Bill Dunford – Riding with Robots on the High Frontier

Why should we worry about what’s going on outside the cave? We have so many problems here inside in the cave.

Why should we waste time trying to figure out agriculture? We have so much work to do hunting and gathering.

Why should we spend so much effort messing about in boats? We have so many issues here on the land.

Why should we fiddle with those computers? There is so much calculating that still needs to be done with these pencils.

Why should we explore space? We have so many problems here on Earth.

The answer to all these questions is the same: reaching for new heights often creates new solutions, new opportunity and elevated hope back on the ground.

We should NOT spend indiscriminately in space. But moderately-funded space exploration — as one small part of an overall program of basic scientific research — has blessed lives in many ways over the years, from satellites measuring drought conditions to new imaging techniques in hospitals to global communication.

Brian Wang – Next Big Future

Lack of a space program will not solve anything else faster and a well planned program [not what we have been doing] can deliver massive benefits. History shows the logical flaw.

There has been no historical example of any group “solving all of their problems before embarking on exploration/expansion/major project”. The solve all problems locally before advancing has not been shown to be a successful strategy. There has been major examples where the imperfect/highly flawed expander had major advantages over the non-expander (who was also flawed). The biggest one is China had the largest ocean going fleet in 1400’s. Then the emperor destroyed that fleet. The Western nations came a few hundred years later and forced China to give up Hong Kong and Macau for 99 years. The Europeans colonized North America and expanded economies because of those policies. The world has about a 60 trillion/year economy. There is not a shortage of resources in money or people to target problems. Well funded, well planned and well executed efforts can be directed at all of the problems simultaneously. Just putting ten times, a hundred times or a million times more money does not convert a failing plan, project against hunger, poverty, corruption into a successful plan. We better plans and better thinking.

Space exploration and development has had a lot of waste and a lack of purpose and a good plan. A strong case can be made that the overall purpose of the space programs have been one aspect of political pork with minimal space efforts and the name space program. Clearly the space shuttle and the space station have vastly under delivered for the money spent on them.

Strategies for successful space development: Focus on lowering the cost and the purpose of colonization and industrialization and
commerce (tourism etc…)

– If lowering the cost is best down with more robots then use robots first or mainly. do not force the manned program until costs go down.

– fuel depots in space (bring the costs down closer to the cost of LEO $2000/kg)

– More nuclear propulsion and non-chemical systems (mirrored laser arrays for launches).

Ian O’Neill – Astroengine

Being an astrophysicist and space colonization advocate, my natural, basic and very quick answer is: to explore the undiscovered. It is a very basic human trait to want to explore, why limit our horizons to the surface of the Earth when there are infinite possibilities for development of the human race amongst the stars? We could be on the verge of realising that this step into the cosmos is a very natural progression for us. To borrow a quote from Stephen Hawking:

“We once thought we were at the centre of the Universe. Then we thought the sun was. Eventually, we realised we were just on the edge of one of billions of galaxies. Soon we may have to humbly accept that our 3D universe is just one of many multi-dimensional worlds.” (ref)

Looking back on the 21st century, when we have established a presence throughout the solar system, future generations will view our “proto-space” selves much like how we look upon the pioneers and explorers of the 16th century who colonized the strange but fruitful lands of the Americas. Back then, the Earth was flat. Like then, the going will be tough and the rewards of “leaving the nest” will not be fully realised until we make that bold push into a new era of discovery. Space exploration is as natural as colonizing the continents; it may look costly from the outset, but in the end we’ll all benefit and evolve.

John Benac – Action For Space

Mankind’s expansion to the Moon and Mars will serve as a shocking and unifying symbol that lifts the even the poorest soul’s belief in what they, as a human, can accomplish. 7 billion people each raise their belief in what man, individually and in groups, can accomplish, and the collective change in positive self-confidence provides a new ability and impetus to solve all other problems on Earth.

Phil Plait – Bad Astronomy

First, the question of why spend money there when we have problems here is a false dichotomy. We have enough money to work on problems here and in space! We just don’t seem to choose to, which is maddening. $12 million an hour is spent in Iraq; the US government chose to do that instead of fix many problems that could have been solved with that money. NASA is less than 1% of the US budget, so it’s best to pick your fights wisely here.

Second, space exploration is necessary. We learn so much from it! Early attempts discovered the van Allen radiation belts (with America’s first satellite!). Later satellites found the ozone hole, letting us know we were damaging our ecosystem. Weather prediction via satellites is another obvious example, as well as global communication, TV, GPS, and much more.

If you want to narrow it down to exploring other planets and the Universe around us, again we can give the practical answer that the more we learn about our space environment, the more we learn about the Earth itself. Examining the Sun led us to understand that its magnetic field connects with ours, sometimes with disastrous results… yet we can fortify ourselves against the danger, should we so choose. Space exploration may yet save us from an asteroid impact, too. Spreading our seed to other worlds may eventually save the human race.

But I’m with Fraser. These are all good reasons, and there are many, many more. But it is the very nature of humans to explore! We could do nothing in our daily lives but look no farther than the ends of our noses. We could labor away in a gray, listless, dull world.

Or we can look up, look out to the skies, see what wonders are there, marvel at exploding stars, majestic galaxies, ringed worlds, and perhaps planets like our own. That gives us beauty and joy in our world, and adds a depth and dimension that we might otherwise miss.

Space exploration is cheap. Not exploring is always very, very expensive.

Astroprof – Astroprof’s Page

Space exploration is important BECAUSE we have problems here on Earth. We need to expand and grow as a species. Our planet has limited resources, and we need the resources availible in the Solar System as a whole if we are to use them to solve our problems here. The technological advances developed for space exploration also go to solving other problems on Earth. And, on top of all that, Earth is a planet. Understanding planets helps us understand our own planet. And, Earth is affected and influenced by external forces. Understanding those things also helps us to understand our planet, and allows us to adapt to changes that occur naturally or that we create.

Robert Pearlman – collectSPACE

Many of the problems we have on Earth are rooted in a our need for new ideas. From medical advancements to political diplomacy, it often takes a new perspective to find the answer. Space exploration offers the rare opportunity to look inwards while pushing out. The photographs sent back of the Earth as a “fragile blue marble”, a whole sphere for the first time, gave birth to the environmental movement. Astronauts, regardless of their home nation, have returned to Earth with a new world view, without borders. But the perspective isn’t limited to those who leave the planet. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, “mankind” took on a new appreciation for all of humanity. It was “we” who went, even if “we” were not living in the United States. That sense of unity was recognized by the Apollo 11 crew upon their return to the planet: Buzz turned to Neil and commented, “We missed the whole thing…”

Robert Simpson – Orbiting Frog

The value of knowing about things is not quantifiable. We can qualitatively say that as we have become more knowledgeable, we have become better prepared for the things that come our way. We are more able to grow and to make progress by knowing more about the world we live in. Our planet is just one of many in a solar system that is also just one of many.

The cost of human exploration, and the risks involved, are often discussed. However everyone would seem to agree that until a human being had set foot on the Moon, we had not really been there. Likewise, it will not be until humans stand on Mars, that we have really visited the planet. Science can be done by robots and probes, but experience can still only be obtained by human beings.

Ryan AndersonThe Martian Chronicles

The List:
1. Perspective
2. Protecting and Understanding our World
3. Inspiration
4. The Economy
5. Exploration
6. New Technology
7. Answering the Big Questions
8. International Collaboration
9. Long-Term Survival
Click here to read the full version.

Of course, that’s just our opinion. What’s yours? Feel free to comment below and continue the discussion.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
April 11, 2008 1:58 PM
I think it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between *manned* and *unmanned* space exploration. The former is a waste of time: humans are dumb, slow and fragile. Only a select few will ever benefit from personal exploration. Furthermore, manned exploration evokes concepts of “empire building” and “getting off this rock” which are both ridiculous notions. Not only is the Earth our home, creator and protector- hardly a “rock” which we must “get off” at all costs- but taking notions from our violent past (such as empire) and projecting them into space via manned exploration is ludicrous. Unmanned exploration, using robots, is the only purely productive, scientific, and creative endeavor humanity has ever embarked upon. The limits of robotic… Read more »
April 11, 2008 4:45 PM

*And now that we have conquered Earth*

The Earth never was and never will be something which requires “conquering”. This kind of masculine sentiment is at best stone aged, and it would be a crime to project that sentiment into space exploration (not annexation) as you seem to suggest.

*Extinction avoidance.*

There are much more immediate problems which need to be resolved. Extinction for you might mean the destruction of the Earth millions of years in the future, but for others it means surviving day to day life.

Again, I fully support robotic exploration. What I do not support is sending dumb ape-like humans out into the galaxy to colonize/”conquer” it.

Ian O'Neill
April 11, 2008 5:42 PM

I’m with Darnell – money is a very good reason, and case and point is the huge space tourism trend at the moment.

When a wealth of precious metals are found on asteroids, I can see a similar trend toward astro-mining initiatives… supply and demand – there’s an infinite supply of “stuff” out there and there’s one hell of a demand down here…

Cheers, Ian

April 11, 2008 5:46 PM

Oh Ian, I wanted to respond to your comment that the 16th century explorers thought the earth was flat:

*we look upon the pioneers and explorers of the 16th century who colonized the strange but fruitful lands of the Americas. Back then, the Earth was flat.*

This is not at all correct. It has been known since Greek times (and probably much earlier, back into Babylonian history) that the Earth was round.

The notion that early European explorers of America thought the earth was flat is a myth propagated in the 19th century.

April 11, 2008 6:54 PM

*Historically speaking it has been precisely those imperialist desires for conquest that fuel exploration and expansion. It is also those societies that historically benefit the most and have the greatest prosperity*

I would not disagree with your assessment. I would suggest that projecting these beliefs into extra-planetary and extra-solar exploration may not be entirely beneficial to either ourselves- or, more importantly- anything we encounter during our explorations.

Surely you would agree that an imperialist conquistadorian mentality- a mentality which has led to the deaths of millions and the destruction of entire civilizations- is not something worth spreading about the galaxy.

With robotic exploration there is no question: we come in peace, and we’re NOT staying.

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson
April 11, 2008 12:50 PM

Space exploration and development is of vital importance to future peace and prosperity here on Earth. As long as our civilization remains confined to Earth, humanity is trapped in a zero-sum game for the Earth’s limited resources.

Space exploration and development is also the key to protecting Earth from a “deep impact” collision that could destroy civilization.

April 11, 2008 1:17 PM

Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before!

Silver Thread
Silver Thread
April 11, 2008 2:37 PM

As humans exist now, I am inclined to agree that the prospect of manned space exploration is unrealistic. The distinction between crossing the ocean and entering space is that there is some hope of finding a habitable locale on the other side of the ocean.

I am deeply enamoured with the romantic notion of people in space, but I simply don’t see a great deal of feasibility in it. Space exploration however seems like a critical step in the advancement of our species. If we cease to care about expanding the frontiers of knowledge, there is little reason to think that other concerns should have any sort of social gravity.

April 11, 2008 3:31 PM

Extinction avoidance. There is no better reason. As long as we are all in this one biosphere, the chance of survival are deminished. Granted, we are a long of either finding some other place to live (unlikely at this time) or building a place to live that is sustainable (a little more likely but hard to do), but we need to start and work the problem. Worst case, the sun will boil the oceans in 50 million years. But gigadeath will coming so much sooner, thanks to unchecked reproduction.

We have work to do.

Emission Nebula
April 11, 2008 3:36 PM

I cant remember who said it, but I once heard someone say that “we are the universe trying to understand itself”

And that saying will stick with me for the rest of my life.

I dissagree with the post above me. I think manned missions are of the up most importance. We are indeed explorers. And now that we have conquered Earth, space and new worlds should be what we invest most of our money into.

Plus finding life is important too. And there are many reasons for this. Go ask anyone in the field of astronomy why this is important.

April 11, 2008 11:50 PM

How about this one: Because it’ll drive the stay-at-home carping idiots crazy! MuAHahahahah!!!

Darnell Clayton
April 11, 2008 5:07 PM

These are great reasons, but you are missing the MAIN reason why people do not see the value in space.

Money–plain and simple. People want to know what the “return investment” is, whether its in the form of new technology, energy saving or just plain gold.

If we do not address these issues other than by saying “exploration” or “extinction avoidance,” then we are going to lose this argument fairly quickly.



I do value the exploration and extinction arguments, although I do not think they are effective statements, especially with the next generation.

Mike Puckett
Mike Puckett
April 11, 2008 5:34 PM

I see negative value in unmanned exploration unless it is a precursor to follow-on manned expeditions.

The can only be justified by the latter.

Casey S.
Casey S.
April 11, 2008 6:34 PM
I couldn’t disagree with MrBill more. Sending people to other places is the whole point of exploration. Yes of course unmanned exploration is a vital tool for expanding our science and knowledge, but the argument sounds suspiciously similar to those who don’t support space exploration at all. I don’t see a real differenc between the two arguments. Saying ‘it would be a crime’ to bring whatever sociological conflicts us ‘big dumb apes’ have to new places sounds awfully close to ‘we need to solve our problems here first before we can focus on what’s out there.’ The fact is, is that disdain for ‘conquest’ and imperialism is nothing more than the current fashion of moral relativism. The view… Read more »
Emission Nebula
April 11, 2008 6:44 PM

“And now that we have conquered Earth”, by this I meant that there really isnt new land for us to explore. Sure there are parts of Earth that no one has stepped foot on, but is it really going to look much different from the last place we looked? Are we going to find new things that are going to “wow” the world?
I dont believe so.

Humans have the understanding to achieve so much more than what this little blue marble has to offer.
Hows the saying go, “we dont do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard”.

Sound familer?
I think more people should have this mentality.

Cheers smile

April 11, 2008 6:46 PM
Space exploration will be and should be the greatest justification as to why we have, we NEED to solve our global problems right here on this “rock” as some say…There IS no where else to go, plain and simple. There is no place in the solar system, and nothing in close vicinity either. People who say “we need to expand the empire” and “overpopulation is the problem” are, in my humble opinion, heartless and disrespectful to our species. Those concepts are osbolete and have nothing to do with space exploration, it’s just politics, and rightwing politics at that. We need to explore outside this wonderful blue marble to establish once and for all peace, equality and unity inside… Read more »
Emission Nebula
April 11, 2008 6:50 PM

Dear Casey S,

Thank you smile

Casey S.
Casey S.
April 11, 2008 9:27 PM
In response to MrBill, it is true that these beliefs will not be beneficial in every way to ourselves or what we may encounter, but only insofar as no societal system is perfect and beneficial to all parties in all circumstances. While this mind set has led to the ‘deaths of millions and the destruction of entire civilizations,’ or at least contributed to such things, like it or not, historical reality shows that it is the powerful and prosperous civilizations that survive and those that are weaker are conquored, assimilated, or destroyed. This is the way that human society has been ever since its beginning and is likely to be so as long as it exists. Those who… Read more »
Uwe Heine
Uwe Heine
April 12, 2008 4:23 AM

People keep talking about spending money in space. At some point whoever invests in space technology is going to start reaping the benefits. The resources in space are spread very thin, but compared to earth the energy and material there are essentially infinite. Whoever first exceeds financial break-even with regard to space resources is going to dominate the global economy. Space exploration (including manned) is an investment in the future prosperity of mankind. Lately China seems to be more visionary than the US in this regard.

Jeff Krukin
April 12, 2008 5:37 AM

Please see the article about “The Human-Space Connection®” at