Debating space

By Phil Plait | May 16, 2011 7:00 am

So this is cool: the National Forensic League — the national honor society that promotes debating skills for high school students, and which suggests topics for debate teams — has announced their policy topic for the 2011 – 2012 debating season… and I like it!

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.

Nice! I think this is an excellent topic, and I know it’ll get a lot of folks thinking about space. There are a lot of pros and cons to space exploration, of course, but to me the positives far, far outstrip the negatives. Not everyone agrees, so I’d be interested in seeing some of these debates.

I get a lot of questions — a lot — about astronomy and space from kids in this age group. I expect this debate topic will prompt many more, since I’m outspoken on the topic. So I’ll take this opportunity to link to a few of my earlier blog posts where I make my opinions pretty clear. I’ve divided them up into subtopics to make them a little easier to read, too. I have no problem trying to influence the opinions of others, but my intent here is to give any potential debaters a place to start, a jumping-off point.

Agree with me? Disagree? Why, that’s why we have debates!

Politics and space

Space leaders to Congress: light this private candle
Congress passes NASA authorization bill, but I’d rather watch sausages being made
Obama lays out bold revised space policy
Obama champions science… but where’s NASA?
Obama and McCain on space exploration

Space exploration

What value space exploration?
40 years later, failure is still no longer an option
Give space a chance
From distant planets to the deep blue sea
Why explore space?
Neil Tyson on exploring space
Human exploration of Phobos and Deimos

NASA and space

Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and those who sacrifice for the stars
Ten years of the International Space Station
NASA’s next small step: to an asteroid
Wait, how big is NASA’s budget again?
My NASA Op-Ed in the New York Post
Whence NASA?
NASA’s budget… as far as American’s think
Followup to Congressional NASA hearings and my thoughts
An open letter to NASA

I expect I’ll be referring a few students to this blog post in the year to come… and if you know kids who are interested, let them know about the topic! And, as always: per ardua, ad astra.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Linda Mitts for this info.


Comments (44)

  1. Grand Lunar

    Sounds good.
    Perhaps stuff like this might stir some more interest in space.

    I wish I had this stuff when I was in school…..

    Oh yes, and as you may know Phil, Endeavour has launched.

  2. Huh, that was the exact same topic they used back when I was in school; it was something like 1992 or so. It was fun.

  3. Cort

    Anything that promotes debate is good, and there is not much I can think of that is cooler (in its geeky way) than Phil Plait promoting policy debate.

    But much as I love the subject matter, I think this is going to be a bad topic from a competitive debate perspective. I hope I’m wrong–I want my own team, as well as every other debate team, to have a fun and interesting year. But there is history here–this same topic (almost word for word) was debated in the early 1990s, and those of us who have been around debate for that long remember it as a terrible topic. I was my state’s representative to the topic selection meeting last year and nothing I heard there makes me think it will be better this time around.

    It’s not space as a subject that is the problem, it’s a bunch of things related to how we go about debating our topics.

    At any rate, to return to the positive: Phil, here’s something you can contribute that might improve our experience of coaching, judging and debating on the topic. How many different specific ways can you think of that we should go about doing what the topic asks us to do (increase our exploration or development of space)? What particular policy proposals could an affirmative team advocate on this topic? And, on the other side of the equation, what are the biggest general objections to increasing exploration (other than the standard “spending bad” argument)?

  4. Great resource(s) here BA. Thanks. :-)

    I might not always have agreed with you when it comes to space policy but I have always appreciated your thoughts and comments on it. :-)

    BTW. Just watched Endeavour‘s twenty-fifth and final launch. Textbook smooth and all seeming to go to plan so far. Click on my name for link to Aussie news item on it. :-)

  5. When I was in middle school we debated the Boeing V Airbus us military tanker controversy.

    Now I am out of college and that debate is still going on in congress.

    I guess my middle school debate team wasn’t persuasive enough :(

  6. davidlpf

    Isn’t space’s arguments always a little empty.

  7. Kirk

    @Pfooti — Me, too!

    But I think it was 1991, when I was a senior. I only think that because I can’t recall the specific plan we had, which means it was probably our weird goals-criteria case that befuddled our opponents. Rather than proposing a specific plan, we outlined the goals of space exploration and then defined and supported the criteria needed to accomplish those goals.

    One difference in this resolution is the inclusion of the word “development.” It was simply “exploration” when we were debating it.

  8. Murff

    Just remember this comment from a recent cartoon you posted on the blog:

    “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

  9. Speaking of the shuttle launch, perhaps Phil (or someone else here) can answer this for me…

    Why is it that, whenever the SRBs are separated, they always point nose up? Is something actively done that causes this? Is it something about the way they’re designed? Or is it simply “that’s the way it is”, and it wasn’t some part of the design?

    Oh, and I’d love to hear some of those debates that this topic could produce. Obviously, I lean towards to “pro” side, but a good debater should be able to take either side.

  10. @Kirk, @Pfooti Me three. I think it was the 90-91 school year since it was my senior year. We did OK at state (colorado) and got our butts handed to us due to some crappy judging at NFL regional Quals (Judges, I tell ya. I’m still bitter).

    Phil- tread carefully with regards to policy debate @ the high school level where the NFL is concerned. For instance, we ran a comprehensive robotic Mars exploration plan, but some folks were running Astral Projection and Nano Tech plans. A lot of times at the summer debate institutes these crazy plans are written by college debaters and passed to the kids who attend the camps.

    More to the point, anyone who did policy debate in high school, especially if they were serious about it and tried competing with the real heavy weights will tell you it isn’t always grounded in reality. I mean, in one round I argued that NASA had no connection to the Federal Government (an argument, strangely, I won, since the judge was not a normal debate judge). I did learn a little about science, but that wasn’t always the primary driver. Remember, every negative scenario ends in nuclear holocaust, so it isn’t the most realistic logic.

    None the less, what I DID learn from HS debate was how to research and formulate an argument, anticipate other arguments, and even strategy on argumentation and asking questions. I also learned how to manipulate data and or truncate quotes and whole paragraphs as to make them seem to say things they did not, but we don’t mention those things in in polite company often.

    If you are interested Phil you should check out a couple local debates next fall here in Boulder or the north suburbs of Denver. It’s a pretty weird/cool/fun subculture.

  11. Grand Lunar

    @Ken B

    Actually, the SRBs don’t always point nose up.

    Video from their descent shows they do spiral as they fall toward Earth.

    The fall does seem to be controlled by thrusters on them, from what I can tell by looking at the footage.

  12. RocketDoc

    @KenB and GrandLunar
    The SRBs do tumble as they fall. There are no control thrusters that control their tumble. There are booster separation motors, but they only fire for a short time to make sure the boosters fall away from the shuttle. I’ve watched on-booster video from launch through booster splashdown, and it’s pretty amazing. Anyway, once they get close to the water, chutes are deployed to make sure they fall (mostly) tail down so they aren’t damaged by the landing and can be recovered.

  13. Joseph G

    I’m confuzled. When I think “forensics,” I think DNA testing and fiber samples, not debating.
    Perhaps someone who’s knowledgeable about etymology could enlighten me? Maybe I’ve just been watching too much CSI? :)

  14. Jason

    @ joseph G ..
    Forensics threw me for a second at first too, thats the connotation I put it in, but if you think about it a debate is a forensic process. In forensics something is torn apart and studied in extensive detail, and a good debater will do the same thing to a topic in order to bring the most effective arguments to bear.

  15. Kirk

    @10. Joseph G

    Here you go: In short, the term “forensic” refers to rhetorical argument or discussion.

    Your question points out a common typo that Phil is guilty of. It’s not the National “Forensics” League, it’s the National *Forensic* League, without an “S”. I recall being kind of picky about that when I was a member of the NFL…


    Phil Plait:

    And, as always: per ardua, ad aspera.

    Huh? Er… Per ardua, ad aspera translates verbatim as: “Through adversity to hardships”.

    Actually, it should be Per aspera ad astra (“Through hardships to the stars”) or, alternatively, Per ardua ad astra (“Through adversity to the stars”).

  17. Brian J. Parker

    One of the neat things about National Forensics League as I recall it is that you must be prepared to debate both sides if the issue. Even if you feel one side has a stronger argument, understanding the other makes it easier to meet the most logical and reasonable of opposition. I think it also keeps debate civil.

  18. chris j.

    everyone who lives in kansas knows that it’s “ad astra per aspera.”

    the unfortunate reality is that national debate topics stimulate interest in the political process on a wonk level, but rarely affect the topics themselves. debaters (master debaters, we called ourselves) become very knowledgeable on the issue, but seldom influence it. i remember that my debate topics in high school were social security reform and prison overcrowding. while i think that a kirk cameron movie that was released around that time briefly sparked more interest in debate, i don’t think debate has ever sparked interest in a topic.

  19. Gary Ansorge

    As I recall from my high school history classes, Queen Isabella was roundly criticized for funding Chris Columbus. His explorations were considered to be not cost effective,,,

    The upfront expense to develop space resources is so high that only nations and international corporations working in tandem are likely to be able to afford it however, the potential long term return on investment is so large as to be meaningless. There are at least 3000 planet earths worth of recoverable resources just in this solar system(and that’s based on our current technology), in the form of asteroids, moons, comets and smaller planets. The current world GDP is around 74 trillion dollars. Investing 1/10th of one percent of that (74 billion)per year over the next 20 years could easily see us with lunar mining colonies, solar power satellites and asteroid capture and utilization.

    100 solar power satellites could generate a trillion/year in gross income. MOST of that would be net, since there are no fuel costs in space.

    Other resource recovery/return to earth of raw materials would be refined , high value metals, etc, dropped down the gravity well to earth.

    (We really need some firm numbers here, to encourage companies like apple to invest some of their cash hoard).

    I expect, if we can do the “irrational thing”, in 100 years, total solar system GDP would be 100 times what it is today(at least).

    GAry 7

  20. frankenstein monster

    I think that such debates are largely pointless.
    Those who want seek means. Those who don’t want seek reasons.
    There is essentially nothing to debate here.
    Just endless talking past each other, because the disagreement is based on something so deeply rooted inside each side’s nature, that it is essentially non-negotiable.

  21. Dan

    @Joseph G and Jason:

    On TV, before they just started saying “CSI,” they used “forensics” as a shorthand, but it’s not “forensics” the cops are really waiting for at the crime scene, it’s the forensic science unit.

    “Forensic” comes from the Latin root “forensis,” itself stemming from the Latin “forum,” and originally referred to that which was intended for and/or suitable for public discussion and debate. Forensic science collects evidence for use in the courtroom, i.e. the public forum. The students in the National Forensic League practice public speaking and debate.

    There’s a persistent myth (or at least, there used to be) in the National Forensic League that they predate the ever-so-slightly-more-famous NFL, but it is not so.

    @ 16 Frankenstein – But in an academic setting, the purpose is not to settle the question, be it space exploration or renewable energy or American foreign policy towards China or any of the dozens of other topics the NFL has debated over the years. The purpose is to learn and practice sound argumentation, logic, rhetoric and public speaking skills. One might call it pointless only if one doesn’t understand what the point is supposed to be.

  22. Per ardua, ad aspera seems a little pessimistic.

  23. Zach

    As an alumnai of the NFL I’m proud that they have chosen this topic for the next season. I was never a Policy person (I did LD) but for this topic i would have gladly switched. This will certainly stimuate some critical thinking on both side of the subject, and maybe even generate some visibility for the potential that lies outside of LEO.

    As an aside: one of the best side effects of the NFL is that it stimulates critical thinking in the volunteer judges as well, many of whom wouldn’t encounter such topics in their daily lives.

  24. Jamie

    My advice to anyone who is debating for space travel : read up on the ideas of false dichotomy and the excluded middle. Seems to be that what I hear the most from many naysayers is one of these.

  25. Bob_In_Wales

    @17 – “The purpose is to learn and practice sound argumentation, logic, rhetoric and public speaking skills.”

    In other words the first part, the Trivium, of a university level, medieval, liberal arts education (grammar, logic and rhetoric). See for example

    See also the Christians’ Bible, Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, Verse 9.

  26. Kim

    I’ve been involved in the debate world for many years. What is REALLY sad is that the kids who will debate this will end up knowing MORE than most of our policy makers in congress. They could stand to go watch some of these teams and get good ideas- any year.

  27. As much as I have faith in humans, I have sympathy with the scientists counting the doomsday clock. The costs of space exploration are large, of course. But we’re living in a new world, with old social constructs! Borders between countries, religious and oil wars—with no signs of change.

    We’ve needed a paradigm shift in perspective, and have been granted one! The pictures of the Earth from the Moon are possibly life changing, even if observed on TV. We’re a whole lot of people living on a pale blue dot, to use the term Carl Sagan’s term. We only have ourselves. We are animals, that need to come together like brothers and sisters. Because, we’re really a lot closer than that, when we view it from the perspective we’ve been granted.

    I feel the time to unite has been in the human wheelhouse for a while. We’re fools not to consider space exploration, if not for the sake of learning about the universe we live in, then for the simple fact that it’s in our best interest as a group of people to maximize the chance of our long term survival.

    Thanks a lot, and great blog.

  28. I’m not sure this selection is such great news. As Brian Parker (#17) notes, the NFL requires the teams to debate either side of the question. This implies, to me at least, that the people selecting this topic believe that both sides are fairly equally defensible. I’d rather they’d considered it and rejected the question as being too biased toward the exploration side.

  29. Duane

    Hi, I’m excited about next year’s topic. While I harbor no illusions about what the creatively minded kids will do with it (I’ve coached high school policy debate for 23 years now), I am excited that for a full year kids will think about space. Working for AIAA, we get a lot of requests to help kids understand the value of space technology and policy to our everyday lives, so this topic will do just that. And, for the people worried about nano debates, etc. In 1989, on a college debate topic, my partner and I ran case which coerced Japan into giving the US a share in a research market on HDTV technology. A lot of the evidence we used came from Senate hearings about the possibility, one day, maybe, that the US could have HDTV and how it would, posisbly be awesome! So, the weird Nano tech case of today, could turn out to be tomorrow’s reality. That’s what I like about debate – it gives kids the abilities to think about tomorrow, before tomorrow is even fully formed!

  30. M Tadano

    There are many who see the exploration of space as a wasteful venture… Their values lie elsewhere. I am someone who is very interested in cosmology but have no training other than viewing web pages like this one (which is very appreciated, by the way) and watching the Science Channel.

    Beyond my “interest”, however, I believe that there is much practical use for space exploration. I believe that one day we will harvest minerals and who knows what else from the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc. I also realize that the space program over the decades has contributed technology to our society that most people don’t realize. So I think this will be an excellent debate topic. The only way we can justify that this exploration is not a “waste” is for people to keep the benefits and potential benefits in the discussion and in the public view.

    There are people who see space exploration as exciting in and of itself. But whatever can be done to “market” the idea that the benefits are greater than the cost to the general public will help further the expectation that space exploration is a good thing. I hate that it comes down to that, but in our society it’s money and profits that “talk”…

  31. Matt B.

    @18. chris j. I remember either Growing Pains or Head of the Class having an episode where a character was, at the last minute, put on the other side of a debate from what he believed. Also, just because you’re a master debater, that doesn’t make you a cunning linguist. ūüėČ

  32. Egad

    One of the things that has bothered me considerably for many years is the lack of clarity, to put it charitably, as to what “space exploration” means and doesn’t mean. Is it identically equal to any and all human flight at altitudes greater than 100 km? Does it include scientific study of objects beyond the earth’s atmosphere by satellites and probes? Landing robots on other planets and satellites? Landing people on other planets and satellites?

    Does sending people to ISS qualify as space exploration? Was Apollo space exploration and if so, what made it that?

    Just what are we talking about?

  33. Schnee

    Neil deGrasse Tyson at UB: What NASA Means to America’s Future

  34. Joseph G

    @ Kirk and Dan: Thanks. That makes a lot of sense.
    I’ve always wanted to try my hand at debate (formally, that is).
    A question for the NFL members and other folks who’ve taken debate as a subject, though – is the ultimate purpose of debate to convince others, or is there a more subtle goal that I’m not catching?
    If we’ve learned anything from watching politics unfold, it’s that a logically sound and fact-based argument can get trounced by appeal to emotion and careful framing, sometimes quite easily.

  35. @29 BobApril – the purpose is not to accept or reject a resolution, it is to learn argumentation. They learn to attack or defend a position regardless of their personal opinion. A good debator can attack the unasailable and defend the indefensable.

  36. Quiet Desperation

    And we have liftoff! There’s it goes! Oh noes! It hit the debt limit!

    Duane Says: Working for AIAA…

    Hey, how’s that outfit doing these days? They published a paper of mine about 10 years ago.

  37. frankenstein monster

    I fixed it for you :

    A good debator demagogue can attack the unasailable and defend the indefensable.

    What is the point of training demagogues is beyond me, though.

  38. John EB Good

    I would add ex-shuttle flight director Wayne Hale’s speech he gave to NASA people (though he would have made a better case giving it to the American People) to your list of suggested readings for the would-be-debater:

    Well, except if it gives them too easy a debater’s kill shot and these young fellows end up learning nothing over what’s a debate.

    (May I tell you I had a lot of fun convincing someone in college that God didn’t exist, then, convince him back He did, then, once he was sure He existed, to turn him back to the Dark Side? What a great memory from my youth! If unhelpfull for society, it’s sure a great intellectual form of entertainment. There are so few nowadays.)

  39. This was also a topic for college (NDT) debate back in the early 80’s. We had a rather successful case for developing a Space Watch program for detecting hazardous asteroids and comets. There had not been much attention on the subject at that time.

  40. I like John Wyndham’s phrase for the exploratory instinct: The Outward Urge. It’s also the title of one of his books, about interplanetary travel and how it’s influenced by earth-based politics.

  41. Rigar

    I think there is more than just the exploration of space. There is a educational part, for our children, to get excited about science. In the early 70’s, I got turned on by science, through the N.A.S.A. programs. Not just Astronomy and Space just science in general. So the money that we spend on exploration and what we learn, also helps get young minds excited about science, That is a good thing and well worth the money. Maybe we might learn something as well. We have a lot to learn


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