The space programmes of both the USA and the USSR became perhaps the most important prestige projects of the Cold War. From the launch of Sputnik – the first artificial satellite – in 1957, through to the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, the first moon landing in 1969, and beyond, both superpowers invested huge amounts of money in order to outdo each other in the so-called ‘space race’.
At the time, this was a convenient project to choose: while it allowed the two nations to compete in a supposedly peaceful area, proving their scientific achievements, the work on rockets also fed directly into work on the inter-continental ballistic missiles which would allow them to strike at each other with nuclear weapons in the event of war. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the future of space exploration has become less clear. Russia no longer has the resources to invest in a substantial space programme; without an enemy to compete with, the USA has also cut back on its exploration programmes.
The emphasis is now on missions which are ‘faster, better, cheaper’ – grand projects such as the Voyager missions of the late 1970s seem unlikely to be repeated. In particular, the commitment to manned exploration of space has almost disappeared; although potential missions to Mars are occasionally mentioned in the press, there are no solid plans to send human beings to another planet in the short to medium term. The proposition in this debate will be proposing a renewed commitment to the exploration of space; the opposition focuses on the practicalities, and the fact that money may be better spent elsewhere.