It seems that an eternal question plagues conversations about the future of commercial or governmental spaceflight: “To man (a spacecraft), or not to man?”
-This query is one I am often posed when I reveal my own spaceflight ambitions. Many wonder why we bother with the incredible expense of sending humans off-world when critics argue that 1) the same or better work could be performed with robotic spacecraft; 2) laboratory experiments in space add little value to what we can achieve here on Earth; or 3) that in the context of state-supported spaceflight these activities divert crucial funds from other social needs.
Well, as it would turn out, former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr. Joan Vernikos has answers.
Defending Human Spaceflight
In a sweeping article she authored back in 2008 for the medical journal Hippokratia entitled, “Human Exploration of Space: why, where, what for?”, Vernikos exposes the many failings of these criticisms while highlighting a spectrum of commercial and societal applications for human space research.
- For starters, she points out that the repair and upgrades of the Hubble Space Telescope - universally hailed as not only the most important telescope in history but also as one of humanity’s most successful scientific endeavors - was only possible via the use of skilled and trained astronauts.
- Expressing a fair amount of foresight, Vernikos then goes on to point out that commercial space travel providers (see: SpaceX) will rely on the knowledge gained from human spaceflight to support a safe and secure experience both for researchers and adventurers.
- There’s the classic and no-less-relevant argument that human explorers have capabilities for innovation, troubleshooting, creative problem-solving, and adaptation simple unavailable to robotic counterparts. This is particularly useful when utilizing very sensitive instrumentation and performing research with many unknowns or variables.
But these points, suitable defenses on their own, pale in comparison to Vernikos’s description of the commercial enterprise that grew out of the Shuttle-era…
Exploring the Space Applications Market
The reality of trickle-down consumer technology and products that were originally developed for human spaceflight applications is breathtaking. It truly seems that anyone who downplays the commercial and social trickle-down benefits of tackling the challenges of human spaceflight simply hasn’t done their homework. For example, Vernikos (here emphasizing her medical background) describes in detail that space exploration is directly responsible for:
- The ubiquitous reflective, anti-UV, anti-glare coating on eyeglasses
- Small-scale blood-testing (requiring drops instead of vials)
- The entire field of telemedicine
- In-utero fetal monitoring
- Genetic pathogen-detection sensors
- Telemetry computing for the civil and environmental industries
- Enhanced breast cancer diagnostics using the Hubble Telescope digital imaging system
- Tissue engineering
- Enhanced antibiotics generation
- Bed-rest countermeasures
-And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In this way, Vernikos promotes redirecting attention to the idea of the “Space Applications Market,” which is the name she gives to the commercial arena where these NASA-driven technological and knowledge advances are incorporated into commercial and societal applications.
Instead of the microgravity-tended orbital commercial manufacturing or power-generation facilities that many assumed would be the means by which commercial enterprise would capitalize on human space exploration, it’s been the smaller-scale technological innovations and applications that make a (if not somewhat obscured) powerful impact both on the economy as well as on our daily lives. Just look at the above list of advances in health technology and medical know-how.
-And new research suggesting a possible link between exposure to ionizing radiation in space and neurodegeneration – an accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s Disease – means that the greatest medical advances as a result of human spaceflight may yet be ahead of us.
All it will take is support for human spaceflight.