Space Utilization as a Subject of Academic Debates

Alfred C. Snider
Assistant Professor
University of Vermont

I. Academic Debate as Interdisciplinary Education

Today, on college and university campuses and in high schools all across America, thousands upon thousands of students engage in an organized forum for discussing important issues in our society and educating participants about decisionmaking processes. This forum is interscholastic and intercollegiate academic debate. Large numbers of students compete as representatives of a broad spectrum of high schools, colleges, and universities. Moreover, debate can be used very successfully as a tool in classroom discussions of important concepts and issues; basic guidelines for using debate as an in-class educational tool are detailed in Appendix Three.

Competitive and in-class debates serve several important objectives. First, debates usually focus on policy issues with important societal implications. Debates thus offer instructors a unique opportunity to relate often abstract classroom theories to "real world" issues in an area interesting to most students. For example, policy debates centering on space-related topics can be employed in economics, foreign affairs, political science, history, and almost any other social science discipline (although in some fields debates on value topics rather than policy topics are more appropriate). Second, debates provide a significant educational experience. Obviously, students learn about the processes of "debate" and "decisionmaking" during the activity, but, additionally, debaters consistently utilize skills such as: public speaking, logic, persuasion, organization, research, composition, and other subtle tools relevant to such a complex act. Third, debate encompasses an element of play and competition that attracts and stimulates students, promoting the educational process. Debates that focus on space policy issues frequently appeal to students because of factors such as: student interest and stakes in the future, both as individuals and members of a society with long-term concerns; student fascination with new adventures and challenges; student concern over potential limits to growth and the need for new frontiers and additional resources; and student involvement with technology (e.g., electronic video games, computers, videotape decks), which often leads students to consider both the potential and the disadvantages of high-technology solutions to social problems, which often constitute the partial or virtually total product of technological progress.

II. Points of Stasis in Space Utilization Debates

In debates focusing on space utilization, certain issues seem to come up over and over again. Such issues may be thought of as points of "stasis." From the perspective of Gass, there exist certain points of stasis, or "centers of controversy, which inhere in all policy disputes" (1). Thus, policy questions in and of themselves lead to certain points of stasis. Some of the points of stasis in debates encompassing space utilization are reviewed below. When relevant, such points of stasis can be applied during in-class debates.

A. Resource Limitations

Several issues seem relevant here. First, affirmative teams are prone to argue that space utilization represents a viable answer to growing resource shortages. Second, negative teams often respond that the initial cost of such endeavors is too high. Third, negative teams argue in some situations that any expensive affirmative proposal for non-space-related programs will be funded at the expense of continued space utilization programs. Each topic is discussed briefly below.

First, debaters see space utilization as an answer to resource limitations. Human history has been a story of expansion: populations, wealth, occupied land, and the ability to control nature have all increased. However, many concerned scholars contend that unlimited growth on Earth cannot proceed much longer without a world collapse, i.e., accelerating resource depletion in the face of vastly larger populations. Perhaps the seminal document in this field is the Club of Rome 1972 publication, "The Limits to Growth," prepared by a study group of scientists and industrialists concerned with the future. The authors sought to assemble, in mathematical form, all known data about population, pollution, food supplies, industrial needs, and the synergistic interactions among such elements. They then constructed an elaborate computer model and concluded that, if current trends continued, world civilization would collapse before the year 2100. The authors noted that the only way to avoid such a disaster would be adopting a policy of limited growth (2). Although the study has been attacked for methodological shortcomings, this research nevertheless provided a powerful impetus for debaters, encouraging many debate teams to look toward the future‹emphasizing the ecological impacts of growth, the uses of greater wealth, and the distribution of existing wealth into a limits-to-growth model.

Affirmative teams advocate space utilization as a way out of this trap, arguing that we are at an important turning point and must take action to escape a closed-system Earth. R. Buckminster Fuller, a common source among debaters, has noted that "we are in an historically critical state of humans aboard spaceship Earth. I think we have been given adequate resources to absorb our many trial and error explanations for knowledge. We have been allowed to make a great mess of things‹until now" (3). Specifically, a number of affirmative teams propose space development along the lines suggested by Gerard K. O'Neill (4). Such development would use current space technology to build space habitations. For example, some teams have proposed that space developers might build a small station on the Moon, where a mass driver (a device to use solar energy to electromagnetically propel pieces of lunar material to a spot in space between the Earth and the Moon) would deliver resources to a small space manufacturing center. Utilizing solar energy, the manufacturing center would process the raw materials into usable form and create larger habitation exploiting the weightlessness of space. Workers also could begin building solar power stations to supply energy to work units in space and to the Earth. Eventually, lunar or asteroidal material might be processed in space for use on Earth. Thus, space development could provide unlimited energy at a low cost, as well as unlimited raw materials. In the long run, habitations might evolve into large, self-enclosed worlds housing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of persons. Thus, affirmative teams have been directly addressing this point of stasis‹ limited potential for terrestrial growth‹by proposing long-term space utilization.

Second, as economic considerations are used by the affirmative to justify dramatic space utilization proposals, so cost issues are a significant consideration in negative teams' responses to these proposals. The cost could be enormous, and negatives charge that proponents of such proposals have drastically underestimated the required investments. As the "Washington Star" observed in an editorial, ". . . most scientists do concede that O'Neill's ideas are technologically sound, though not all of them feel that they are economically feasible" (5). In fact, some estimates suggest that such a program will cost thousands of billions of dollars (for example, those of Garrett Hardin (6)). Negative teams sometimes argue that major breakthroughs in land-based fusion electricity generation could easily destroy the economic viability of space-based solar energy systems (7). Thus, negative teams call into question the economic costs and practicality of long-term space utilization proposals.

Third, against many expensive affirmative proposals for non-space programs, negative teams argue that needed funds would come at the expense of the space program, which is far more cost-beneficial. For example, one negative team (from the University of Louisville) contended that the deployment of an antiballistic missile system (advocated by the affirmative, Augustana College of Illinois) would prompt the Administration to cut NASA's budget significantly, thus depriving the United States of the many possible benefits of short-term and long-term space exploration and utilization. The presumption here is that the Administration will allow neither an increase in total federal spending nor an increase in the budget deficit; consequently, as the affirmative advocates more military systems, funds must be freed from other parts of the budget, in this case mostly from NASA, which negative teams portray as a program high on the list for future cuts. In this way, any expensive program may be transformed into an argument over space utilization. Thus, the advisability of future space programs has become a point of stasis itself within academic debate.

B. Security Concerns

Almost everyone can agree that national security is an important issue, but debaters are concerned with issues of "terrestrial security" as well. Three types of security issues have emerged in debates where space utilization is an issue.

The first concern addresses the Soviet Union's intentions in space. Debaters are anxious to take competitive advantage of the evolving views of many citizens about the Soviet Union's space activities, popularly perceived as a security threat. Thus, debaters introduce arguments based on the potential of the immense Soviet space program to literally swallow the U.S. space effort. To avoid a "Solar System Red," debate teams propose vast new space programs to counter the Soviet challenge in space. Such teams argue that national security demands protection from attacks originating both on the Earth and in space.

Oddly enough, the second space utilization security issue takes off in the opposite direction. For example, in the final round of the Georgetown University High School Institute Debate Tournament (8), a team contended that the Soviet posture is largely reactionary, and a surge of American space development most likely would precipitate an arms race in space. This scenario assumes that once we have significant assets and interests in space, we cannot avoid the need to protect such assets. Thus, space development guarantees an expansion of Soviet-American competition into space, with deadly consequences. We might find, as one critic of space development has suggested, an updated version of the "lifestyles of centuries past, when raids of the Normans, Berbers, and other seafaring peoples depopulated Earth's coastlines‹except that this time the weaponry would be a great deal more destructive" (9). The implications of this position seem rather obvious and certainly represent an alternative security scenario which might be useful against an affirmative team advocating massive expansion of space utilization programs.

The third security concern analyzes the position of the United States vis-a-vis the underdeveloped nations, commonly referred to as the Third World. A recognition of space development as an important world issue probably accompanies a view of the world as an interdependent system. As such, it is hard to imagine disaster overtaking the Third World without a similar emergency being visited on the other two centers of world power‹the Western nations and the U.S., and the Eastern nations and the Soviet Union. Debaters often utilize the tremendous suffering and hardship in the Third World to generate a significant impact for certain arguments. It certainly is not a farfetched hypothesis that actions in the developed nations exert an important influence over the total human suffering in the Third World. Debaters usually apply these relationships to space utilization by examining the need to improve the life of Third World peoples before they are force to demand their share of the world's wealth. As one Third World spokesperson, Abdelkader Chanderli, has stated: . . . we are rapidly moving toward a huge explosion because of the gap between the rich and the poor. Sooner or later people with bare hands will be more powerful than all the damned sophisticated weapons together. You cannot destroy one billion people. You have to live with them or die (10).

Many debaters posit the expansion of space utilization as an answer to this crisis. These debaters argue that solar power satellites could provide unlimited energy to the Third World, that raw materials processed in space could supply the basic ingredients for a new world order, and that improved satellite technologies would both revolutionize educational opportunities and provide the knowledge base necessary for leap-frogging technological progress in the Third World. Such teams argue that infusions of wealth from space are the only way to avoid the violent perils of world poverty.

C. Technology Spinoffs

To date, American space utilization undeniably has produced considerable technological benefits. Techniques and technologies central to the fields of electronics, computers, medicine, and physics are products of the space program. Many studies reported in the popular literature document such benefits, and debaters naturally have taken advantage of such evidence. Figures demonstrating the space program's positive cost-benefit ratio, attributable in large measure to technological spinoffs, certainly help debaters to justify increased expenditures for space programs.

However, the issues of technological expansion which are so closely linked with space utilization are not all positive. Debaters also raise the specter of space as a "dehumanizing" environment because of its heavy emphasis on technology. For example, George Wald has declared, "What has already gone much too far on Earth in technologizing all aspects of life‹nutrition, motion, medicine, birth and death, and everything in between‹will find its complete consummation in space" (11). While technology may provide interesting creature comforts, debaters often seriously question the concomitant impact on human relations and the richness of people's lives.

Finally, an interesting aspect of the various points of stasis in space utilization discussions is that many of these points come from entirely opposite directions. For example, the points of stasis surrounding technological progress are very bipolar‹one argument emphasizes that more technology is a positive force, while the other contends that more technology is disadvantageous. Although such arguments are not necessarily common in the public policy arena, they are certainly typical issues in debate rounds. Such debate arguments are unique because competitive debate structurally demands a high degree of bipolarity. The realities of competition actively encourage teams to establish positions in direct opposition to those of the other team and then to defend such positions as fully as possible. As a participant in and a coach of academic debate for seventeen years, I am familiar with the intellectual struggle one often confronts while building a negative strategy against an affirmative case that‹ objectively‹is probably a good idea. For example, when an affirmative team argues that the U.S. should feed starving people overseas, a negative is hard pressed to prove that such suffering people "don't exist" or "shouldn't live." Yet, negatives must argue in a consistent and radically different way from the affirmative in order to convince judges that "the U.S. shouldn't feed hungry people"‹or, at least, shouldn't use the affirmative's proposed approach. Negative teams often resort to a complex position based on limited world carrying capacity, the impacts of food on population growth, and the potential of alternative food distribution systems. Much the same strategy must be used against cases advocating large increases in space utilization programs. To counter what may seem like a good idea, negative teams must employ any reasonably feasible arguments of a bipolar nature.

III. Space Utilization on Specific Debate Topics

The national bodies controlling collegiate and high school academic debate perform one major function, selecting a topic which is debated by all schools for an entire year. Some of these topics have been more closely linked to space utilization than others. For example, under the 1978-79 college topic on employment opportunities for all citizens, many very successful teams advocated space utilization as an answer to America's employment problems, arguing both that technological spinoffs would create a large number of jobs and that the space program itself would require many highly skilled workers who were in oversupply. Moreover, since long-term economic growth (and job creation) is linked to energy supplies and resources, this approach also was applied to increasing long-term job opportunities.

Appendix Three materials also include a brief summary of the teaching and research experience of two intercollegiate debate coaches.


1. Robert Gass. "The Stock Issues Perspective: A Reappraisal." 1980, p. 2.

2. Adrian Berry. "The Next Ten Thousand Years." N.Y.: Saturday Review Press, 1974, p. 13.

3. R. Buckminster Fuller. "Technology and the Human Environment." In: Toffler. "The Futurists." N.Y.: Random House, 1972. See footnote 4, pp. 304-5.

4. Gerard K. O'Neill. "The High Frontier." N.Y.: William Morrow and Co., 1977.

5. Editorial. "The Washington Star." November 3, 1977, p. A14.

6. Garrett Hardin. In: "Space Colonies." N.Y.: Penguin, 1977, p. 55.

7. See footnote 6.

8. A text of this debate is included in: James J. Unger. "Second Thoughts." Skokie, IL: National Textbook Co. 1978.

9. Paul Csonka. "Space Colonies: Blueprint for Disaster." The Futurist. October 1977, p. 288.

10. Abdelkader Chanderli. "On Growth Two." 1975, p. 23.

11. George Wald. ln: "Space Colonies." See footnote 6, p. 44.

Appendix Three

Debate Analyses

Guidelines for Using Debate as an In-Class Tool

Alfred C. Snider
Assistant Professor
University of Vermont

When debate is employed as an in-class educational tool, many of the detailed rules which govern interscholastic and intercollegiate debate can and should be jettisoned for classroom use, although instructors may find it useful to consult with an experienced debate coach, if one is available. Basically, teachers who employ in-class debates as an educational tool should consider the following factors when organizing a debate:

(1) The instructor should designate a specific, narrow topic for discussion. The topic should call for a change in policy, or sometimes in value, from that advocated by the current system (or status quo). The topic should be structured as a resolution (i.e.: Resolved: That . . . )Usually, the topic will call for a specific agent‹often the federal government‹to take action to make a policy change.

(2) The affirmative speaker or team (usually two people) should support the topic, calling for a policy change. The negative speaker or team should either advocate the present system's policy (including any reasonable progress that the system can be expected to make) or support an alternative policy which is not the present system and is not the affirmative plan. For simplicity, the instructor probably should specify the system that the negative must support. In the end, both the affirmative and the negative should defend one policy system, and the debate should compare the two policy systems.

(3) The affirmative should initiate discussion of the harms caused by the present policy system (or the advantages to be gained by supporting the affirmative plan) and the inherent structures and/or attitudes within the present system which prevent policy changes that would alleviate or eliminate the harms (or achieve the desired advantages). The affirmative also should present a relatively detailed plan that does eliminate the harms or gain the advantages and represents a manifestation of the designated topic. The affirmative has the right to assume passage of this plan for purposes of argumentation (i.e., the negative cannot claim that the plan would not be passed by Congress or the agent specified in the topic); however, any attitudes that might prevent passage of the plan can be cited by the negative as motivations for circumvention of the plan, as long as the negative also specifies the means and impact of any circumvention.

(4) The negative should initiate discussion of features of the present system (or the policy system advocated by the negative) that do or will tend to alleviate the harms or to gain the advantages cited by the affirmative. The negative also is responsible for analyzing the affirmative plan. One focus of this analysis is whether the plan actually can achieve its advantages or eliminate the cited harms (i.e., is the plan structure sufficient to overcome attitudes, still-existent legal or social structures, and other relevant factors that might impede the plan's success). Another focus of the plan analysis emphasizes any disadvantages that would occur because of the adoption of the plan (i.e., does the plan worsen any existing problems or create totally new ones).

(5) Each speaker or team should think through relevant issues, planning initial positions and subsequent responses in advance and developing organized, outline-form arguments. The instructor and other class members might help the debaters prepare such argumentation. Each speaker or team should use evidence to support such positions and arguments, although the strict requirement for evidencing all assertions can be relaxed for in-class debates, allowing the debate to focus on reason more than on evidence.

(6) The instructor should decide how many speeches will be alloted to each team, the length of each speech, and whether or not to allow cross-examination during one or more formally designated cross-examination periods (of course, a teacher might decide to permit heckling, but such a rule can encourage the rapid deterioration of a formal debate into a shouting match). The standard speech length and sequence in interscholastic and intercollegiate debates can serve as a guideline. In collegiate debates, each of four debaters gives two speeches (one constructive, one rebuttal), is cross-examined once, and cross-examines one other debater. Each constructive lasts ten minutes, each rebuttal five minutes, and each cross-examination period three minutes. Speeches proceed in the following sequence: first affirmative constructive (basic affirmative positions and plan); first negative constructive (defense of negative system vis-a-vis affirmative arguments); second affirmative constructive (defense and extension of affirmative positions); second negative constructive (analysis of affirmative plan); first negative rebuttal (defense of negative system in light of second affirmative constructive); first affirmative rebuttal (defense of plan in light of second negative constructive and defense of case in light of first negative rebuttal); second negative rebuttal (final defense of negative positions on affirmative analysis and affirmative plan versus the negative system); and second affirmative rebuttal (final defense of affirmative arguments and plan versus the negative system). After each constructive speech, the speaker who gave that speech is cross-examined by a member of the opposing team. Instructors may wish to shorten the debate by having fewer speeches. In addition, teachers may wish to make each speech slightly longer, allowing fuller discussion of important issues without the need for excessively rapid speeches. Preparation time between speeches may be appropriate.

(7) Debates can be unjudged, or the instructor or the class as a whole can decide whether the affirmative or negative won the debate.

The Use of Space Research in Intercollegiate Debate

Melissa Maxcy Wade and James M. Wade Director of Forensics and Assistant Debate Coach Emory University

College-level courses in argumentation usually are housed in the department of speech communication. Intercollegiate debate tournaments (or in-class debates) represent an important practical application adjunct to the theoretical study of argumentation.

During the summer of 1975, Emory University hosted a two-week summer forensics institute for high school students and teachers. While researching background information on the high school debate resolution (conservation of scarce world resources), the work of Gerard O'Neill came to the attention of the Emory staff. After several college seasons focused on debating the food crisis, the population explosion, the energy crisis, the scarcity of resources, and the increasing international tensions, the notion of industrializing space presented an intriguing possibility for tournament debating.

The 1975-76 collegiate debate resolution called for government creation of a comprehensive program to control land use in the United States. Emory debaters supplemented summer research on O'Neill's proposal by studying relevant scientific conference reports, government hearings, research study reports, periodicals, and newspapers. Virtually every source in the public sector was researched, with the resulting information catalogued and structured into advocacy arguments.

This early research on space issues was dominated by the work of O'Neill and Peter Glaser. General and popular periodicals (1) publicized their ideas, which stressed the long-term advantages of space development: abundant agricultural production; extension and possibly addition of territory; space manufacturing; and a supply of cheap, clean, and infinite energy. The "Congressional Record" constituted an excellent source of reprints and updated information. The early issues of the "L-5 News" during 1975 and 1976 reviewed the latest studies and reports. The 1975 "Future Space Programs" (2) hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications (of the House Committee on Science and Technology) also were very informative. The hearings also launched proposals by O'Neill, Glaser, and tangential advocates into the arena of public policy debate. The short-term impacts of space industrialization and satellite solar power stations (SPS) were measured by studies such as the Chase Econometrics Associates analysis in 1976 (3) and the Mathematica study in 1975 (4).

The research was incorporated into the argumentative position that the immediate investment of federal dollars into a comprehensive space development program would mitigate the world's critical problems before they became irreversible. Debate strategy emphasizes the significance of claimed benefits and the solvency (or effectiveness) of the affirmative plan versus the negative policy system (either the present system or a counterplan that does not support the topic as a policy solution). The significance of space industrialization and SPS was staggering in the debate context, and the research also documented plan solvency. Most evidence strongly suggested that the technology required for industrialization, colonization, or SPS was available and feasible (in terms of initial costs and maintenance costs). The clarity of the feasibility argument was critical to the success of the concept on the national debate circuit; because of the quality of available evidence, space issues assumed some prominence in tournament debating.

At one of the first tournaments of the 1975-76 school year (Middle Tennessee State University), one Emory team defended SPS as a negative counterplan against an affirmative plan calling for alternative means of nuclear waste materials disposal. The counterplan phased out nuclear energy on a timetable keyed to SPS output levels, and nuclear waste materials created during the transition were scheduled for disposal in space. Emory debaters also argued the counterplan against teams that advocated greatly expanded government ground-based solar energy programs as a solution to the energy crisis. Following the tournament, Emory staff members delivered a series of lectures on use of the SPS counterplan, heightening interest among team members. Further research and analysis refined and reassessed SPS arguments for future use.

During the 1976-77 collegiate debate season, the national debate resolution addressed consumer product safety. One Emory team refined the SPS counterplan, including a concise summary of the benefits of industrialization and colonization. The counterplan applied primarily to Harvard University's affirmative plan, which advocated nuclear energy over fossil fuels as a consumer product (in terms of health costs, dollar costs, short-term and long-term productive capacity, and environmental impacts). The affirmative version of the SPS case achieved higher than average success, as did the counterplan. In general, the consumer product safety topic did not lend itself to as many interpretations that were germane to the space debate as the previous topic had. However, the research base broadened considerably during the academic year, as O'Neill and other space advocates received more media attention. Government and private studies clarified and often supported the solvency and significance arguments critical to debate argumentation.

The 1977-78 debate resolution focused on felony law enforcement. Although space could not be applied to this topic, students were so intrigued with the notion of space industrialization that they voluntarily continued space-related research. The literature emphasized space industrialization; in addition, three books dealt extensively with the permanent occupancy of space (5).

This voluntary research paid off when the 1978-79 debate resolution called for the United States government to guarantee employment opportunities to each citizen in the labor force. Researchers updated the impacts of space expenditures on employment opportunities, economic growth, and technological spinoffs; debaters then created an affirmative case and plan, as well as a negative counterplan position. The solvency evidence was very strong. The Chase Econometrics study in 1976 provided strong solvency (6), and the 1975 Mathematica study documented spinoff benefits critical to the success of the affirmative case (7). NASA's annual "Spinoff" report also supported the affirmative position. Some excellent negative positions were advanced against the case, but such arguments tended to stress short-term costs and were vulnerable to claims of long-term advantages. The majority of negative arguments somewhat vaguely developed potential risks such as military dictatorships in space, the launching of weapons into space, and concerns such as the fact that planes might be endangered by passing through a microwave transmission beam of an SPS.

In our near decade of coaching intercollegiate debate teams, we have never advanced an idea as stimulating to students as the notion of space industrialization, development, and colonization. Student enthusiasm suggests that space development has a healthy future in intercollegiate debating.


1. For example: "Time." June 3, 1974, p. 51; "Physics Today." September 1974, pp. 32-40;
"Physics Today." September 1975, pp.13-14; "Science News." September 21, 1974, p. 183; "New Yorker." June 17, 1974, p. 23;
"Saturday World Review." August 24, 1974, p. 32; "Fortune." June 1974, p. 120; "Harpers." June 1974, p. 6; "Popular Science." September 1975, p. 65; "Sky and Telescope." April 1975, p. 226;
"Popular Mechanics." May 1975, p. 94; "Space Colonies and Energy Supply to the Earth." Science. December 5, 1975.

2. "Future Space Programs." Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology. July 22-24, 29-30, 1975. Also: "Future Space Programs." Volumes 1 and 2. Hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology. September 1975.

3. Chase Econometrics Associates, Inc. "The Economic Impact of NASA R&D Spending." Bala Cynwyd, PA, April 1976.

4. Mathematica, Inc. "Quantifying the Benefits to the National Economy from Secondary Applications of NASA Technology." Princeton, N.J., June 1975.

5. Frederick Golden. "Colonies in Space." Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1977; T.A. Heppenheimer. "Colonies in Space." Stackpole Books, 1977; and Gerard K. O'Neill. "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space." William Morrow and Company, 1977.

6. See footnote 3.

7. See footnote 4.