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Dr Niamh Shaw: Why space travel is much more than a billionaire’s pastime

The space exploration advocate makes the case for continuing to look up and learn from the cosmos.

Niamh Shaw

NEXT WEEK, ALMOST 53 years since the Moon landing, will see NASA launch its Artemis 1 spacecraft for a 4-6 week return mission to the Moon. The Artemis programme is NASA’s next era of human space exploration, the ultimate aim being to establish a permanent human base on the moon to prepare for missions to Mars.

It kicks off next week with a rollout of the craft on 17 March, to run through final checks and a ‘wet dress’ rehearsal of every element of the launch, right down to countdown. And if that all goes according to plan, then it’s only a matter of weeks before we return to the moon once again.

Artemis I will be the first integrated test flight of NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Systems, which includes the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and the Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Centre. While this first flight won’t involve a lunar landing, it will lay the foundation for future Artemis missions.

The programme aims to send the first woman and person of colour to the moon in the next 2-3 years, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.

Why focus on space?

What’s it all about? you might ask. Why is space exploration important when we have so many pressing challenges to deal with on earth? The horrific war in Ukraine, climate change, poverty and illness causing untold human suffering.

There is a line of thought that considers space travel to be a fanciful pastime, a whimsical ambition that’s a distraction from real life and real-world problems. We’ve got Planet Earth to fix, they say – let’s focus on that instead of jollying around outer space.

This perspective seems to have proliferated in recent years as the private space exploration sector has grown; for some space exploration has become a billionaire’s playground with no tangible benefit for humankind.

I understand that concern, but I beg to differ. I would argue that space exploration and the Artemis mission is a crucial part of the human existence. As human beings, we have a natural urge to explore and discover. We are curious, inquisitive, and thirsty for knowledge. Throughout history, we have striven to learn about the world around us. If we ignore our desire to explore, we deny a core part of our humanity.

Space exploration helps us to answer fundamental questions about the Universe, our solar system, our place in the great cosmos and ultimately ourselves. A cosmic perspective also highlights how Planet Earth is truly exceptional and precious. Something we simply must not squander.

On a more practical level, space exploration has delivered multiple benefits to the human race and enhanced life on planet earth in many ways.

New technologies

Space exploration has led to the development of technologies that we have come to depend on during everyday life. For example, global positioning system (GPS), more accurate weather forecasting, solar cells, ultraviolet filters in sunglasses and cameras, ceramic coatings in kitchenware, air purification systems, smoke detectors, scratch-resistant glass, memory foam and cordless vacuum cleaners, to name just a few.

Polymer textiles designed to insulate and protect astronauts in the extreme temperatures of space and during re-entry to the atmosphere have been adapted for use in firefighting; these heat-resistant fabrics protect firefighters from flames and extreme heat.

To give another example, on the International Space Station (ISS) German astronaut Matthias Maurer has been testing innovative materials designed to prevent bacterial growth. The benefits for public health in hospitals, public transport and the food industry could be manifold. We’ve come to appreciate the importance of such research during the past two years of the pandemic.

Medical research

The unique atmosphere in space enables important medical research to be undertaken that couldn’t be done on earth. Space travel can be hard on the human body with astronauts experiencing loss of muscle mass and bone density, as well as experiencing negative effects on their heart and circulatory system.

Understanding the effects of microgravity, radiation and isolation on the human body supports researching treatments for diseases including cardiovascular disorders, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Space exploration also facilitates the study of ageing and the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on the body.

Monitoring climate change

From space, astronauts have witnessed the sharp decline in the polar ice caps. Satellites monitoring air, water and soil pollution provide vital information about how the earth’s climate continues to change.

For example, the thinning of the ozone layer was discovered with the help of satellites. This information feeds into climate solutions and strategies to mitigate or prevent further damage to our precious Planet Earth.

Watch out for the asteroids!

As dramatised in the movie ‘Don’t Look Up’ asteroids have the potential to seriously damage our planet. While an asteroid of the magnitude described in the film is unlikely to hit earth any time soon, smaller asteroid impacts are more likely.

Space programmes and astronomers studying the galaxy and its asteroids can give us the information we need to accurately deflect potentially hazardous collisions.

Space mining

Asteroids have a plus side though and could potentially be mined for precious materials. This would give welcome relief to the pressure on earth’s finite, natural resources and the consequential environmental damage.

Inhabiting other planets

My passion for Space exploration has made me very conscious of just how precious and special our planet Earth truly is. I took part in a Mars simulation experience in the middle of the Utah desert in the US a number of years ago. Having to wear a space suit replica that enabled me to breathe outside, the limited availability of water and eating powdered, tasteless foods reinforced for me how lucky we are to live on such a beautiful planet with all its rich resources.

But as the effects of climate change have shown, many people are now forced to live in more extreme conditions. Studying how to grow food in orbit or on Mars can help to develop food growing techniques to produce much-needed food in developing countries.

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But, you might ask, how much does all this cost and could that money not be better invested in other more pressing areas? NASA’s 2022 budget, at approximately $25 billion, represents just 0.5% of the total annual US federal budget.

By comparison, the US Department of Defence has a $636 billion budget or 13% of total spending. And every dollar spent on NASA delivers more than $8 to the US economy. The European Space Agency’s 2022 budget of €7.15 billion compares to an EU budget of € 1 073 billion for health.

Investing in space programmes supports highly skilled jobs, nurtures technological developments and new businesses. It also fosters peaceful collaboration between nations, working together towards a greater purpose. Recent geopolitical developments have shown that this is something we simply cannot take for granted.

Space exploration programmes continue to benefit life on earth today. Most recently we’ve seen how Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite internet connectivity is supporting connectivity and telecommunications in besieged Ukraine. Programmes like Artemis will continue to benefit us and future generations to come.

This is a dark time on this planet, with the recent pandemic and now further conflict in Ukraine. It may be tempting to give up on looking up, but even in the darkest of times, there is a nobility about continuing to strive to not only survive but also to achieve something great.

Dr Niamh Shaw is an Irish engineer, scientist, writer and performer who lectures at the International Space University in Strasberg. Niamh will be at the NASA Kennedy Space Centre to report on the first major step towards a return mission to the moon with the rollout and wet dress rehearsal of Artemis I spacecraft on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March. Follow her adventure on Twitter: @Dr_Niamh_Shaw.

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