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Space isn’t just a distraction. It could be our salvation

It was a bright spot in the long, dark tunnel that was the year 2020. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic Sweeping the globe, SpaceX made history on May 31 by launching NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida in its sleek, modern Crew Dragon spacecraft.

While much of humanity simply wanted to go to a restaurant or just leave the house, two humans left Earth, starting a new era of space travel. The mission called Demo-1 was the long-awaited demonstration of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a partnership of space agency, Boeing and Elon Musk̵

7;s SpaceX with the aim of ushering in a new era of human space exploration. In addition to being the first manned space launch from US ground in nine years, the program will provide a major boost to science in orbit.

For more than six decades, space programs run by the United States, other countries and now by private companies have been developing technologies and making new discoveries in the service of solving difficult problems. Some advances, such as satellite communications, are well known and others, such as a NASA-supported method for disarming landmines, may surprise those who see large budgets for space exploration (NASA’s 2020 budget is $ 22.6 billion) as a waste of money. But these solutions usually end up having applications that improve the daily lives of Earth-bound humans, including discoveries that could help save us from the ongoing pandemic and other major problems we face.

“On the International Space Station, researchers are harnessing microgravity to produce human tissue and develop new vaccines,” says NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Because things behave differently in space, these are medical advances that would otherwise not be possible.”

The inauguration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which can accommodate up to four more astronauts than the three-person Russian ship Soyuz that NASA has used exclusively to ferry crews into orbit since 2011, also brings a boost to research. More seating means more hands available to do more hours of science in space. And that science could have real-life implications.

“The amount of time allotted to conduct science on the station is expected to be roughly doubled,” says Patrick O’Neill, spokesman for the US International Space Station National Laboratory of the next era of commercial crew.

Some of those extra crew hours could be destined for less life-critical experiments with trading partners like Adidas, which investigated how foam particle molding under microgravity conditions could affect the performance and comfort of its shoes. (There’s a Space jam joke to do there somewhere.)

More importantly, more astronaut hours could help the U.S. government’s multi-billion dollar effort to secure millions of doses of experimental coronavirus vaccines from big pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur. The French multinational drug manufacturer has worked with NASA and the ISS National Laboratory to study how human immune cells change in the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station. And with the worldwide demand for doses of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, insights from space could be the key to making the process affordable and getting the vaccine to the masses sooner.

Astronaut Scott Kelly administers his flu vaccine aboard the ISS in 2015 as part of research on microgravity vaccines.


Rachel Clemens, head of innovation at the ISS National Lab, wrote in March that research in life sciences on how various cells and systems respond in microgravity conditions could be particularly helpful. Studies could lead to better vaccine manufacturing methods and improved vaccine efficacy.

“Cultured cells change their physiology in interesting ways in terms of microgravity,” Clemens wrote. “While scientists aren’t studying COVID-19 in space, research on the International Space Station (ISS) tells us a lot about microbes.”

Out of this world innovation

The dawn of the commercial crew and the return of manned launches to American shores is the culmination, in some ways, of a quiet resurgence in cutting-edge research that is happening some 250 miles above our heads. Over the past decade, new high-tech facilities available for public and commercial interests on the ISS have resulted in a large increase in life science research.

Some of the newest resources on the space station include DNA sequencing, bio fabrication, and autonomous equipment that supports research with minimal crew supervision. Recent research includes sending genetically engineered “powerful mice” with nearly twice the muscle mass of normal mice into orbit to help scientists investigate ways to combat muscle atrophy and aging. Another effort aims to better understand human disease with the help of tissue-on-a-chip platforms that mimic human tissues and organs study their reaction to microgravity.

There are even new robots on the ISS, including a humanoid helper named R2 in true Star Wars style and a cute / creepy smiling assistant on a screen called CIMON-2 that will remind space enthusiasts of a certain age of a certain HAL.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano works with the cheerful CIMON-2 robot on the ISS.


The ISS, designated a federally sponsored National Lab in 2005, is the best place to do practical research beyond gravity, with an eye on applications intended for use on Earth. It has been so successful as both a science laboratory and a symbol of international collaboration that the ISS is nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the long, rich and sometimes surprising history of technology transfer from space to life below began more than 60 years ago, even before humans left Earth for the first time. We continue to rely heavily on advances such as satellite connectivity, Earth observation and global positioning systems. They are all born from a singular desire to keep up with (and spy on) the Soviets during the Cold War era.

These are obvious examples and there are many more.

“Space is part of the solution set, and when you address big problems, you want to have access to as many solution sets as possible,” said Rich Cooper, vice president of strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, a non-profit organization and advocacy group.

He pointed to the example of the flame retardant fabric and respiratory system that firefighters use when entering a burning structure, both of which came from space research. Astronauts were the first to test heart rate monitors used in hospitals around the world. Neil Armstrong he was wearing the then nascent heart monitoring technology developed for NASA when he became the first person to walk on the moon in 1969.

NASA labs later pioneered the use of water hyacinths and other plants as a much cheaper (and surprisingly attractive) way to treat wastewater, an advance major cities have begun to adopt over the years. ’80. You can also thank the space agency for the scratch-resistant lenses, cordless tools, Tempur-Pedic mattress, LASIK eye surgery, and the insoles of many running and hiking shoes, to name a few.

The science aboard the ISS will increase when the first commercial crew operational mission sends four astronauts to the station in October.

NASA’s Commercial Crew program is helping expand science into orbit.


“Space is a force multiplier in every infrastructure, industry and community,” says Cooper. “This creates opportunities as much as it creates inspiration.”

The European Space Agency uses its Earth observation satellites to monitor all kinds of changes taking place on our planet, from volcanic activity to oil spills, deforestation and urban development. Or as Donatella Ponziana, ESA Downstream Gateway officer described it, “Let’s take the pulse of the Earth”.

This year, ESA is measuring the planet’s vital signs to help officials gather new information on the COVID-19 pandemic. That agency and the European Commission created the Rapid Action on Coronavirus Earth Observation dashboard that shows the pandemic’s impact on dozens of economic, environmental and agricultural indicators such as construction activity, crops and air quality.

Hard space

The hardware originally developed for space also helps in the fight against COVID-19 on the ground.

Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that has been creating circuits and other spacecraft components for a few decades, wants to bring its space solutions back to Earth.

“Space applications require quite significant complexity in design. They also require certainty of results: what you design must actually do what it is supposed to do and must do it for a long time in space,” says Chris Clardy, Cobham’s Vice President of Development. , strategy and technology of the space business. “And they’re typically in very narrow form factors. Size, weight and power are all important and they need to be ultra-low power.”

Cobham designed the first breathing regulator used by John Glenn during Mercury project, which sent the first batch of US astronauts into space in the early 1960s. Today, its components are found on the ISS and electric robotic probes scattered throughout the solar system, including NASA’s Juno spacecraft surrounding Jupiter, the Parker Solar Probe is Osiris-Rex. Cobham components are also used in industrial settings, such as airports, hospitals, and other medical facilities for everything from baggage scanning to mining.

Application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, the company has modified for hospital equipment such as computed tomography scanners must be reliable and strong enough to survive constant radiation exposure, just like spacecraft. They are now being used to detect and sequence the genome of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“As a developer of space technology, we select the technology and design down to the transistor level to survive these radiation effects,” says Clardy. “These contributions from our customers have been essential in the global fight against the coronavirus.”

Cobham and Clardy are also turning their attention to the future, when the company’s space-proven technology will have the potential to help shape the future of communications, the Internet of Things and other areas where it is important that components are small, low consumption and resilient.

Forget the sky. Imagination is the limit

It is not just robotic probes and orbiting projects that benefit us humans. The planned expeditions into deep space should also lead to some innovations.

“As has been the case in NASA history, investments in NASA and our ambitious missions, such as the Artemis program, will lead to new technological capabilities for our nation and the world,” says Bridenstine. The Artemis mission aims to land the first woman on the moon in 2024 and lay the foundation for a permanent presence on our natural satellite.

Take, for example, NASA’s current challenge that asks college students to help solve the problem of highly abrasive moon dust, which can wreak havoc on both astronauts’ lungs and equipment. It’s easy to imagine how working to solve this problem could lead to new ways of dealing with pollution and other airborne irritants on Earth.

And the progress won’t just come from humans. I’ll definitely be in line to own anything inspired by NASA’s shape-shifting robot concept that looks even more interesting than any Star Wars droid. The system is actually a series of robots that can fly, swim, float, and rotate on any terrain – skills that could help locate victims trapped in debris due to natural disasters or other emergency situations.

Last month, NASA has launched the Perseverance Rover on a seven-month trip to Mars with a tiny helicopter called Ingenuity in her belly. Ingenuity was completed in 2017 and the company that built it, AeroVironment, has taken lessons learned from working with NASA and has already applied them to products used here on Earth.

A drone called Quantix, introduced in 2018, allows farmers to scan their fields and identify various plant health problems. AeroVironment Marketing Director Steve Gitlin told NASA’s Spinoff this year that the agency’s requirements for ruggedness “have certainly taught us a lot about reliability in harsh environments, which serves our military and security customers. farm”.

Space will save the Earth … and humanity too

Incremental improvements to life on Earth are one thing, but with climate change and the threat of future pandemics that plagues the planet, saving it and our species is much more complicated. But two men with around a quarter of a trillion dollars in net worth have bold plans to use the space and their wealth to tackle them.

Musk and SpaceX are planning to travel far beyond the ISS, with the goal of build a city on Mars and make humans a “multiplanetary” species in case some catastrophe strikes our home planet. This grandiose vision invites a quick retort that we should solve climate change and the other major problems Earth faces before we mess up another planet. But the process of making Mars habitable will almost certainly yield insights and innovations that will help make Earth more sustainable.

Elon Musk’s goal is to establish a city on Mars.


“Very little of life on Mars in the early years will involve equipment and supplies from Earth,” wrote Stephen Petranek in his 2015 book How We’ll Live on Mars.

Petranek imagines that new systems may be needed to extract water and oxygen to support human life in the Martian environment. One such experiment is on its way to the red planet aboard the Perseverance rover. The tool known as Moxie, for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, aims to extract oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is easy to imagine how the insights gleaned from this effort can be used on other worlds where there is an excess of CO2, as we say … the Earth.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars.


Amazon CEO and founder of Blue Origin Jeff Bezos has his vision of using space to save the Earth. Rather than going to Mars, the sometimes richest man on Earth wants to move as many polluting industries into orbit as possible, onto asteroids and the surface of the moon. The goal is to preserve the Earth for life and place activities that can hinder it elsewhere.

Of course, billionaires can afford to think big, and both visions are still a long way off. But the launch of a brand new spaceship like Musk’s Crew Dragon is a step forward and a welcome dose of uplifting news in troubled times. Keeping an eye on the technological advancement prize might just help end this pandemic a little earlier and give us fancy new space foam shoes to wear when we can start eating out again.

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