Space or food? The hunger for space

With an estimated 1.3 billion people globally still living in extreme poverty, is it ethically responsible for developing countries to have a national space programme?

With more developing countries looking to the success of India’s space programme as inspiration to launch their own, questions arise over whether such programmes can be deemed justifiable. When faced with the reality of high poverty rates and poor infrastructure prevalent in many developing countries, could the money be better spent elsewhere?

This article aims to outline the ethical arguments surrounding the growing interest in joining the race into space.

Who is affected?

The decision to undertake a national space programme lays primarily with that nation’s government, yet the consequences of such a venture will have a much wider impact. To evaluate the ethics behind this decision, the views and potential impact on the following groups; the country’s poorest citizens, educational institutions, engineering companies, and the skilled workforce, must be considered alongside those of the government.

The Optimism of the Government

For the governments of developing countries, a space programme would offer the potential of a profitable industry in a growing sector. This would lead to job creation, a growth in related industries and therefore a strengthened economy.

Investment in a technology based sector would also reduce the country’s reliance on the technologies of other countries. A notable example of this was India’s investment in satellite technology that greatly improved their weather prediction capabilities and directly saved thousands of people from extreme weather.

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The Poorest Hit the Hardest?

With many developing countries still receiving foreign aid, heavy investment into a non-vital industry runs the risk of this aid being cut. Without concrete safeguarding of this vital income it is possible that those in poverty will suffer the most. This could lead them to question their government’s priorities and why none of the benefits from government investment ever seem to reach them.

Views from Inside the Industry

An increase in the number of space programmes does not only benefit existing space programmes through increased collaboration of knowledge in the sector but also benefits the engineering companies that serve the sector. Investment of the kind needed for a space programme could also increase both business and potential government grants for those companies involved.

There is also a dual benefit for the engineering companies and universities as both will profit from increased opportunities for research partnerships. With increased job opportunities for students in this sector there will be a growing demand for those skills to be taught at universities, driving improvements in the level of the workforce produced.

However, a focus on specific sectors can lead to a narrowing of skill sets which may come at a detriment to other vital engineering sectors such as agricultural. This can be seen in India where the rise of the technology sector has left a shortage of skills in its wake.

What are the Options?

  1. Investment by Developing Countries into a Space Programme

Technology is undoubtedly the industrial revolution of the 21st century with knowledge and information now being recognised as a key driver of economic growth. By following the trend set by developed countries, investment in high-technology industries offers a promising route to economic growth. Therefore, in the case of investment in a space programme, the means have real potential to justify the ends. In general, governments tend to make ethical decisions based on this consequentialism framework.

However, in reality more than a billion people still live in extreme poverty and the benefits of a space programme may never reach them. Especially in the short term, it can be argued that a space programme for a developing country cannot be justified as it will not benefit the greatest proportion of the current population.

The ethics of a decision however are almost always linked with the motive behind them. If the investment into a space programme is for political propaganda (arguably the case for the USSR Soviet Space Programme) it may be justifiable in the eyes of the government of the day. However, such an egoistic justification may come at the detriment of the country as the focus shifts from benefiting the majority to benefiting the few.

  1. Use the funding to invest in the vital sectors such infrastructure and health care

Arguably the first obligation of a government is to look after its people – an ethical concept first discussed by Kant. This can be more directly fulfilled through an increase in investment into vital services and infrastructure. Meeting this obligation in such a direct manner will benefit the whole population. This is in contrast to investment in technology whose benefits are biased towards the skilled workforce.

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  1. Use the funding to invest in improving education

Further investment in education will provide and protect a right often saved for those with the privilege of living in a developed country – the right to an education. Taking an ethical standpoint based on protecting certain rights is often referred to as the Rights Approach. Education provides what investment into a space programme alone lacks – the potential for a direct and positive impact on the billions of people still living in poverty.

Well… is it Ethical?

Considering the ethics behind our research we believe investment into a space programme by developing countries can be ethically justifiable. However, this is of course under the condition that the country’s vital services are at a basic level so that financing a venture into the space industry will not detract from its primary obligations to its people. The development of a space industry for developing countries has the potential for a positive contribution towards GDP as well as job creation. Also, if outreach is viewed as an integral part of the programme, its development will also actively improve education. Knowledge has increasingly become a key factor in driving economic growth and the space industry can only fuel the aspirations of a nation as they look towards the stars.


Group 73: Rachel Yehzkel, James Morgan, Hazel Dearson, Philip Beauchamp


16 thoughts on “Space or food? The hunger for space

  1. What if India reduced the size of their national space agency and instead try to encourage corporations to base their operations in India through incentives and such; like how the USA is working with SpaceX and Boeing. India has hundreds of billionaires and some of the biggest companies in the world so maybe a new South Asian Elon Musk will emerge? This would reduce the cost to the tax payer and provide the majority of the benefits that a national space agency brings.


  2. I think that you raise a few good points, wouldn’t a redistribution o wealth from multiple sources be more beneficial than completely stopping a single industry? There are benefits to space programmes that are not always quantifiable like landing on the moon. The platform for technological advancement and social optimism is a noble cause I’d say.


  3. Interesting debate. However, I disagree with your point that ‘arguably the first obligation of a government is to look after its people’. Is it not to protect its own interests? One of which is it’s people?


  4. An interesting read. Before reading I would have argued that developing countries would be better off investing in healthcare, with large investments in space technologies being a foolish endeavour, but this article raises some valid points. Healthcare investment hardly creates economic growth, although it is arguably of great importance to the population. Whilst investment in space technologies would be costly and not beneficial in the short term, in the long term it could have many positive economic effects, and could later lead on to a more sustainable investment in healthcare. Whilst you have me partially persuaded, I still feel like investing in the education of a population provides the most benefit overall both in terms of economic growth for a developing country and by direct effects on the population being educated. That way you are investing both in your people’s welfare and your economy, and the benefits are experienced universally by every member of the population rather than only those privileged/educated enough to be involved/get jobs in space technology


  5. An interesting and relevant discussion, the point concerning the Rights Approach shows the authors’ acknowledgement that for a commitment to a national space programme to be ethical it relies on the government already having met subsidiary targets. Although a contentious subject, the issue of corruption could have been addressed when outlining the issues concerning the government A clear introduction into a very complex topic.


  6. Great article and nice topic! I tend to agree with some of the other comments here, that space is not necessarily the best place to spend money, I agree that it will create jobs and improve skills however the people who are in extreme poverty will not benefit as much as others who maybe need less help. What really can poverty stricken people benefit from a having a national space program? The world in general benefit from space yes, but individual countries do not necessarily benefit more by being an active driver in this industry.


  7. A very interesting debate! I am very much persuaded by the conclusion to the points raised which I believe is considered and well balanced.


  8. A worthwhile read, and I agree with the concluding summary of the piece. Fundamentally even in India (which many people say proportionally spends too much on space given the level of poverty), if you work it out it comes to about 60 pence per person. This is a very small, and valuable investment for potentially enormous gains. We could have had the same argument 30 years ago with regards whether or not we should invest in research on computers. Ultimately, even if it takes a while, technological research always leads to advancements that benefit rich and poor, as well as creating new jobs as the field advances.
    Moreover, we are happy to spend similar sums of money on things such as the royal family, which fundamentally provides us no tangible material benefit, and huge sums on defence/nuclear missile systems, much of which is useful but much of which is simply for propaganda reasons/for show. We let large corporations evade billions of pounds of taxes, and yet we seriously think that it is the space industry which we need to sacrifice for the sake of our healthcare systems? If our governments, Western and Eastern, want to use money effectively to help reduce the gap between rich and poor, they can easily do so without cutting investments into space programmes.


  9. It is interesting to consider that a space program could help the prosperity of the country overall, however I believe the forefront of any governments aims should be the well being of their own people. With such countries as India having such a large population below the breadline they should focus on this rather than spending the money on a frivolous activity.


  10. I think you sum up the argument well. The UK stopped sending aid to India in 2015 for the reasons given in the article so it will be interesting to see if the Indian government can effectively target poverty on their own while supporting a space programme. In a few years if the people don’t think enough progress has been made to help the poor then the backlash against non-vital industries could be huge.


  11. Great article james !
    it’s an issue which people will always have different opinions. Having lived in India and seen the poverty it’s easy for me to say the government should try and eradicate poverty first. However, in a country with 1.3 billion , poverty will not disappear overnight or even in a decade. The space programme allows the government to lay foundations for a more prosperous and technologically advanced India in the future. without getting too political, the New government (unlike the previous gov) has implemented many policies to help increase social mobility and reduce the poverty gap. it will take time , but at the same time planning for the future is vital in terms of space programme and technology in general to ensure it does Not fall behind in the world again.


  12. An interesting and thought provoking article. I tend to agree with the authors’ concluding remarks. I am now intrigued to see how India’s investment into other sectors compares with more developed countries. Could the answer be a more ethical distribution of spending?


  13. This made me wonder about the reasons that a large proportion of the population is in poverty in the first place. Is it because the job market in India is predominantly is low skill, low income work? If so, then a space program may be bringing more high tech industries into the country, which would improve job prospects in India. Having said that, this requires a skilled workforce in the first place and I would say that the money needs to be distributed between education and the space programme.


  14. Many interesting points raised here, Worthy of further research. Does such a high end industry create much trickle down and so alleviate the poverty suffered by so many? Enabling collaboration between industries and other countries ought to contribute to the standing of a poorer country. I wonder if foreign aid will be withdrawn in countries who can afford a space programme to the detriment of those who still need that help. Should a country with so much poverty be making such a ‘giant leap’ into space? The big questions are: What is government for? and Do we actually want to know what is out there?


  15. Well written, informative and thought provoking. The larger theme is what is government for and what choices governments have to provide food or space. At present in the UK right wing media there is a move to stop Overseas aid which is 0.07% of tax so that is about 70 pence for every £100 tax revenue. If India’s government is spending that sort of money on space then maybe it’s justifiable if they are also spending a higher ratio on poverty alleviation. At a time when populations are supposedly “taking their countries back” it would be interesting to know what percentage of the enfranchised poor know they are voting for a government which invests in the space programme. At this time of general election in the UK how many of us know what the various parties are planning to spend on our space programme? Do we have a space programme or has it been privatised or is it dependent on EU policy//money?


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