Quirks and Quarks

Should we have humans in space? A Quirks & Quarks public debate

Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, cosmologist Renée Hložek, planetary scientist Marianne Mader and space flight historian Amy Shira Teitel weigh in on whether we should leave space to the robots.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield headlines our panel looking at the future of space exploration

Should we have humans in Space?

Originally published on June 15, 2019

2019 is a landmark year for space travel.

It marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful moon landing, and the era of commercial space flight and tourism looks closer than ever before.

But is our curiosity for the final frontier a good enough reason to continue sending humans into space? Is space travel worth risking the well-being of human astronauts, when robotic missions can go farther, faster, and cheaper without the comparable risks?

These are the questions at the heart of the first Quirks & Quarks public debate, moderated by host Bob McDonald, which took place at the University of Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre on June 11, 2019. The panel of experts included retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, cosmologist Renée Hložek, planetary scientist Marianne Mader and space flight historian Amy Shira Teitel.

(Live sketch by Kimberley Whitchurch)

The discussion weighed the pros and cons of human involvement in space exploration. We broke the discussion up into four mini-debates:

Mini-debate 1: The Space Race and the Apollo missions

The "golden age" of space travel was driven by rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. The first mini-debate questioned whether the Space Race in the 1960s — including the Apollo missions, which put the first man on the moon — proved that humans belong in space.

"I think Apollo grew a science culture, people really valuing and appreciating science and how we do science," said Marianne Mader, who was arguing for the resolution along with Chris Hadfield.

Mader added that the success of the Apollo missions provided inspiration that rippled around the world, reaching people outside of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"It changed people's ideas of who they could be, based on the example of those people exploring space," said Hadfield. The astronaut argued that accomplishments of other humans — and not robots — serve as the best kind of inspiration to drive space exploration.

Renée Hložek pointed out the downside of the Cold War era excitement around space travel: "What Apollo showed us is that humans are incredibly competitive and that political agendas can drive funding for science."

Space historian Amy Shira Teitel, who also argued against the resolution, added that we have a tendency to romanticize the Apollo missions and their impact on science.

"Only one scientist went to the moon on Apollo," Teitel said. "Jacques Schmidt, the lunar module pilot of Apollo 17, was a geologist. Everyone else was a pilot."

Space historian Amy Shira Teitel says we shouldn't romanticize the Apollo missions

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Space historian Amy Shira Teitel says we shouldn't romanticize the Apollo missions

Mini-debate 2: The golden era of robotic exploration

Robotic exploration of the solar system started in the 1960s with the former Soviet Union's Venera and Zond missions and the American Mariner missions. By 2015, when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto, automated explorers had successfully visited every planet in the solar system. Does the success of robots mark the end of human exploration in space?

One critical advantage of robot exploration is that it is much cheaper, argued Renée Hložek.

"The Mars rover missions cost around $2.5 billion U.S.," said Hložek. "Projected costs for future human trip to Mars is in excess of $300 billion U.S. It just doesn't make sense financially to put humans in space any longer."

Hadfield, arguing for this mini-debate against the idea of humans in space, reminded the panel of the many ways in which humanity currently benefits from robotic satellites, from navigation to communication to forecasting the weather.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield uses a Star Trek analogy to argue his point

On the opposing side, Mader argued that these robotic rovers and satellites are mere surveyors, laying the groundwork for people to do more complicated science.

"If you want to understand the geological history of a place, you need boots on the ground," she said.

Humans have better situational awareness than robots, Mader explained, because we can take in a lot of information, sort out the most relevant facts and integrate them on the fly — something robots aren't able to do yet.

Shira Teitel added that data management is a huge problem for robots, and even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence won't be able to function without human training.

"There's always gonna be that human element," she said. "Even now, you look at data coming down and it's the human that's interpreting it."

Mini-debate 3: Commercial space travel

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have ambitious plans for commercial space travel and colonization of the planets. Sir Richard Branson's company Virgin Galactic hopes to be launching suborbital space tourism flights in the next year. The third mini-debate focused on the near-future of space exploration, which may be driven by big private-sector players like Musk and Branson. 

There's always gonna be that human element.- Amy Shira Teitel, space flight historian

Cosmologist Renée Hložek is not convinced that private companies are the best vehicle for further space exploration.

"It's a red herring to just assume because someone has an innovative solution that we should give them free rein to build a company that is motivated by profit and not by scientific endeavour," she said.

Shira Teitel added that the competition element in the space flight business is not as beneficial to larger humanity goals in space exploration.

"Competition with the Soviet Union and the United States brought this amazing revolution of technology and early space flight technology in the '60s in America. Now, we have basically four entities duplicating each other in an attempt to out-big each other."

According to the space historian, commercial space flight efforts would reap much bigger benefits if the entrepreneurs worked together toward a common goal.

Hadfield, arguing in support of the private space industry in this mini-debate, said that humanity has competition to thank for a lot of recent technological advancements — exemplified by Musk's achievements with his company SpaceX in driving down the costs of space launch.

Elon Musk, founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX, speaks at a news conference after the Falcon 9 SpaceX heavy rocket launched successfully from the Kennedy Space Center in 2018. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

"We need competition in order to thrive and really push the limits of things," said the retired astronaut.

Mader added that the reduced costs also open up the field to a much more diverse community of space enthusiasts.

"We're seeing this new wave of aerospace engineers, of scientists, who have grown up in a connected world. They want to make a difference. They want to make an impact. Once you have diversity within industry, that's where you're starting to see innovation."

Mini-debate 4: The moral implications of humanity in space 

The last part of the discussion explored the proposition that practically and morally, the future of humanity is in space.

Renée Hložek said that regardless of who is tasked with space exploration, we need to remember to address the serious issues on our home planet first.

"I don't think that allowing a couple of innovative entrepreneurs, as great as they may be, to dominate a space industry and just send off rockets all the time until we've actually figured this out, is the way to go."

She also showed concern for the language we use in conversations around travelling to other planets.

"As we talk about space exploration and settlement, a lot of the debate and discussion uses language that talks about colonizing space — that we should go out and basically make space our own and take over Mars. That's a very dangerous narrative that has been very troubling on Earth."

Cosmologist Renée Hložek says we need to 'give the solar system and our planet the kind of respect it deserves'

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Duration 0:52
Cosmologist Renée Hložek says we need to 'give the solar system and our planet the kind of respect it deserves'

Marianne Mader shared Hložek's worries. "There's no reason to think that the societal issues that we face here on Earth won't follow us when we go and set up settlements elsewhere."

However, she was optimistic about humanity pursuing space exploration in an ethical and responsible way as long as we are aware of each other.

Hadfield acknowledged that history might suggest that colonization has a dark undertone, but not in every case.

"There's a difference between rampant ignorant colonization and thoughtful settlement, and we've managed to do both in various places in human history."

There's no reason to think that the societal issues that we face here on Earth won't follow us when we go and set up settlements elsewhere.​​​​​- Marianne Mader, planetary scientist

He pointed out that human settlement in space is already happening, and the way it has been done suggests we have the capacity to do it right. He held up the International Space Station, which he commanded for several months in 2012 and 2013, as a model.

"I think the International Space Station is a terrific example of that. Fifty nations of the world that do not get along have been cooperating 24 hours a day, seven days a week since the early '90s to settle and explore the rest of the universe."

"If you give people a challenge, there will always be people that try and rise to the height of the bar that you set."