This question is very difficult. Obviously space shuttles cause a lot of pollution. Gasses and solids (like kerosene and aluminum) are released into the air, and the fact that the shuttles go so high up in the atmosphere only makes it worse. In fact in Cape Canaveral there is usually acid rain after every shuttle launch. It really only comes down to if you think finding out about the galaxy is worth the degradation to our planet.
It depends on the perceived societal value of space exploration. As Keith pointed out, there are significant pollution effects from space launches; not just the space shuttle, but the dozens of other governmental (and upcoming commercial) space launches of small rockets and satellites. You must also take into account not merely the particulate pollution from the burning of rocket engines, but the debris from space vehicles that remain in orbit or burn up in the atmosphere (such as the large liquid fuel tank that the space shuttle discards with each launch). Is space exploration a dirty business? Yes, obviously. Is it worth it? I think you can make an argument that yes, it is.
There are tangible benefits to the environment from space launches. NASA, for example, maintains some of the world’s best monitoring systems of the effects of global warming, mainly from satellites, and in fact it is satellite observations that helped build the scientific case for climate change in the first place. That couldn’t have been done without space exploration. Furthermore, the advancement of technology represented by intensive space efforts such as the Apollo program of the 1960s and 70s has yielded applications for everything from personal computers to green energy. Then there are the long-term implications. If we ever want to reach the stars or even the distant planets in our solar system, we will be unable to do so with the puny low-powered chemical-fired rockets of our current level of technological development. In order to make it worthwhile to travel significant distances in space we’ll need to travel at much higher speeds–possibly close to the speed of light–which takes much more intensive energy. Development of fusion power as an energy source could provide power on this scale. A workable fusion engine system could also be at least a partial answer to Earth’s energy problems; imagine a cheap, mass-produced fusion reactor that could power your personal automobile (the science fiction film Back to the Future hypothesized just such an invention). Our efforts to battle climate change could certainly benefit from a device like that.
Finally there are the cultural and philosophical implications of space travel. Would exploring other worlds cause human beings to change their thinking regarding their relationship with this planet? I think that’s almost inevitable. Isn’t this exact sort of cultural change the whole plot of the film Avatar? Considering Avatar is currently the most popular motion picture in the history of movies, I think that’s proof positive that this sort of concept has a broad appeal to many people. While I think there’s a case to be made that space exploration should be cleaner and less power-intensive, I also think that we should not judge it based on those implications alone, and instead try to look at it through the totality of what space exploration really means for our society and why we continue to believe it’s important.
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