KFS at large: Is human spaceflight worth the money and risk?

tim peake spacewalk
ESA astronaut Tim Peake steps outside for a walk. Credit: ESA/NASA

After spending most of the day live streaming ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s first spacewalk last Friday, KFS headed to a debate at the Science Museum where a panel asked whether it was all worth it, discussing the question: Human spaceflight: is it worth the money and risk?

After Roger Highfield, the museum’s director of external affairs, introduced the panel, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees kicked off the debate, arguing that the billions invested by ESA in the $100bn ISS would have been better spent on un(hu)manned missions.

The agency should be concentrating on science – particle physics, robotics – rather than spaceflight, he said. Even in the years since ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta mission launched, we’ve made great strides in robotics, which will allow us to achieve so much more in future un(hu)manned missions.

Human spaceflight – given its inherent dangers – is best left to the adventurers with lots of money: the Elon Musks and Richard Bransons, he added.

Branson tries out gravity
The UK’s first ever astronaut Helen Sharman, who most acutely understands the risks involved in space travel, said that humans have a massive advantage over their robot underlings, as we’re capable of making decisions on the fly, decisions that say, might have taken the bounce out of Philae’s nail-biting landing on comet 67P.

Although the price of sending people into space is far, far higher than sending probes, she argued that we’d get far more bang for our buck, as it would currently take a robot a Martian day to do what a human can do in a mere minute. Being able to bring samples back to Earth also pays off in a big way – researchers are still publishing papers based on what we brought back from the Apollo missions more than four decades ago, she said.

Professor Monica Grady, part of the team that brought you Rosetta, briefly brought us down to Earth, saying that space travel should be global mission, and that we must ask whether we’re doing it for the right reasons: are we advancing our understanding of the solar system, or just seeking to plant flags? She agreed that as a risky endeavour, human space travel suits private enterprise.

The ISS’s $100bn pricetag came at the expense of many missions to the solar system, argued Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford. What’s the better story, he asked, Elon Musk making it to Mars, or the Rosetta team’s jubilant reaction to Philae reaction of scientists to the Philae landing? Before you answer, here’s a video (that’s Grady hugging BBC science editor David Shukman).

Ultimately, the actions of the day may have spoken louder than the words exchanged at the debate. Peake’s adventures have been watched keenly by the UK’s youngest science enthusiasts – what could be more inspiring for the next generation of astronauts?

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