Sophia Augier, Grade 11
There is an entire universe of endless possibilities just waiting for humankind to uncover. However, as a nation we struggle to recognize the benefits space research has on human life. Neither the broadening of earthbound scientific research, or the advancement of space research and exploration are mutually exclusive investments. Each is achievable and vital to sustaining human life, and should be simultaneously pursued. Unfortunately, space research, and the benefits these programs yield, lack saliency across the public sphere, and therefore lack the necessary funding and support (1). In contrast, the globally competitive space programs of the 1960’s inspired our nation which subsequently garnered the financial backing of the U.S. government (2). Today, public support can be established with clear correlations drawn between space research and its benefits to life on earth. This type of public understanding is paramount in securing the necessary funding for space research.
Space research leads to discoveries and innovations that ultimately feed two overarching workstreams; improving life on earth and sustaining human life beyond our planet’s atmosphere. This is seen in the life science research data NASA recently shared regarding the effects of long term isolation and confinement on genes, neural circuits, physiological systems, and behavior (3). This data provides great value to researchers focussing on future space travel, exploration, or habitation. Such findings also provide actionable value here on earth, in that they fuel the development of innovative and efficient health screening tools, diagnostic systems, and treatments to mitigate health risks associated with isolation and confinement (3). These timely inputs provide healthcare opportunities for those deeply impacted by isolation during the COVID-19 global pandemic. In space, astronauts remain in the same place, with the same people, doing the same thing day in and day out. The commonality observed between social isolation during the pandemic and the isolation of space travel, helps us understand and prepare for life post-pandemic (3).
Climate change is another global crisis where we continue to do battle. Space research has provided us with solutions to monitoring, managing, and mitigating the harsh effects of climate change. Rising temperatures and abnormal precipitation rates have made countries like the United States, Australia, Russia, and Spain increasingly susceptible to extreme and prolonged wildfires and wildfire seasons (4). Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) utilize their unique perspective and specialized instruments to provide monitoring and managing services for fighting wildfires. NASA engineers were able to create one of the most effective fire detection systems using tools originally developed for space research (5). Their artificial geostationary satellites are able to quickly detect thermal heat and almost immediately notify field officials back on earth using wireless technology. Being the first to be able to detect and notify officials about early fires burning in distant regions, gives firefighters a much better chance of safely extinguishing the fires in time to minimize loss of lives and damage to forests and property (5). Without putting astronauts and resources in space, the world would never have been able to reap the benefits of this unique perspective and technology.
The NASA budget is less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget. At only $23 billion, NASA spending is significantly less than it was at its peak at the the start of the Apollo missions in 1966. Since that time the NASA budget shrank from 4.5% of the federal budget to .5% today. Comparatively, NASA receives a fraction of the funding seen in other areas of the federal budget; 26% for healthcare or 17% for defense (6). Government funding is driven by interest and need, which explains why the NASA budget decreased by about $40 billion following the cold war (6). When space exploration was driven by competition and political interests it received more support. As a result, NASA was able to achieve and innovate on many fronts. When public interest faded and political winds shifted, funding and support slowly shrank over the course of the next 40 years (6). However, space research continued to provide knowledge that benefited life on earth, be it at a lesser rate. Consequently when funding slows down, so does space exploration. The commercialization of space travel allows NASA to better collaborate with global research partners by focusing it’s funding and resources on space research, leaving private companies to compete for contracts to handle the routine shuttling of cargo and humans to the International Space Station (ISS) (1). Companies such as SpaceX saw an industry that was lacking in the resources, but had the reputation of discovering and producing great things. Private companies that understand the profit potential surrounding space exploration were eager to invest their time, money, and resources (7). These private enterprises help offset the impact of decreased government funding (1).
Space exploration takes a toll on the human body. The effects of microgravity cause serious disruption within the body, especially to the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems (8)(9). Once astronauts escape the Earth’s gravitational pull, they put their bones and muscles at risk for atrophy that can lead to increased kidney stone formation and bone fractures, as well as harden the intervertebral discs leading to disc disease and pain (8). Without gravity the cardiovascular system also experiences great changes since blood isn’t being pulled toward the feet, it instead pools up in the torso and head and in response the body decreases the blood pumping rate and red blood cell production, negatively impacting other body systems (9). This may seem like reasons not to continue space research, but the opposite is true (8). Just as firefighters put their lives at stake to save civilians, or soldiers risking their lives at war, astronauts are putting their lives at risk for the future generation. It is our job as human beings to create a better life not just for today, but also for generations to come. Without space research today, there will be no hope for a safe and secure tomorrow when Earth can no longer be called home.
(1) NASA and the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), Benefits
stemming from space exploration. NASA (2013).
(2) A. Rinaldi, Research in space: in search of meaning: Life science research aboard the
International Space Station has come under scrutiny for its costs and apparent lack of
returns. EMBO reports 17 8, 1098-1102 (2016).
(3) A. Choukér and A. Stahn, COVID-19-The largest isolation study in history: the value of
shared learning from spaceflight analogs. NPJ microgravity 6 32 (2020).
(4) M. Goss, et al, Climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire
conditions across California. Environmental Research Letters 15 9 (2020). doi: 094016.
(5) R. Petrescu, et al, NASA satellites help us to quickly detect forest fires. American Journal of
Engineering and Applied Sciences 11 1, 288-296 (2018).
(6) Unauthored, Guide to NASA’s Budget. Planetary Society, (2021).
(7) C. Iacomino and S. Ciccarelli, Potential Contributions of Commercial Actors to Space
Exploration. Adv. Astronaut. Sci. Technol 1, 141-151 (2018).
(8) K. Kandarpa, V. Schneider, and K. Ganapathy, Human health during space
travel: An overview. Neurological society of India 67 8, 176-181 (2019).
(9) B. Dunbar, Cardiovascular Health in Microgravity. NASA, (2020).