The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Columbia cargo bay
The SPACEHAB research module in Columbia’s cargo bay was home to dozens of experiments. (credit: NASA)

The silver lining that is the Space Age

When one contemplates the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts, it is often hard for many of us to separate our emotions from the reasons why we send human beings into space and why those people willingly accept these daring and dangerous missions into a realm that can quickly end life from only a few missteps.

The space shuttle Columbia mission STS-107 was a case in point. Outside of the fact that the first Israeli astronaut was on this flight, the general public knew or cared little of what the mission objectives were. Most media coverage was brief and often buried amidst unrelated news. This shuttle would not even be docking with the International Space Station (ISS). Instead it would “simply” circle our blue globe for sixteen days. The astronauts would conduct over eighty different experiments designed to compliment the work being done on the ISS.

The important fact is that this mission’s experiments did relate directly to our daily lives here on Earth. The researchers studied the major functions of the human body in the purer microgravity environment as it affects the brain, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and the nervous and immune systems. They watched how fire works in space. Earth’s ozone layer and our planet’s climate were examined for clues to how different environments interact with each other.

Is this the emotional equivalent of landing humans on Mars or discovering extraterrestrial life? Not really, but it is good solid research, the kind that has benefits way beyond some brief public attention. It is sometimes hard to see what good such things can do for us in our hectic, busy lives, but the space program is full of examples where designing and testing devices for space travel have led to major improvements for our society.

Is this the emotional equivalent of landing humans on Mars or discovering extraterrestrial life? Not really, but it is good solid research, the kind that has benefits way beyond some brief public attention.

One field of research advanced by space is what the STS-107 crew largely focused on: medicine. Many past space developments, some not even related to the medical field, have made major contributions to this science. One prime example is angioplasty. The Dymer™ 200+ excimer angioplasty laser system was first used for studying atmospheric turbulence from satellites. It was later modified to help remove fatty buildup blocking arteries that could lead to heart attacks. The miniaturization that worked so well for computers also applies to medicine. Thanks to engineers who created small measuring instruments including tubes, valves, and pumps, these same devices have been used to perform such tasks as assisting weakened hearts in pushing blood through the body. This research is part of NASA’s Programmable Implantable Medication System (PIMS).

The technology made to enhance images of the lunar surface during the Apollo program now allows doctors to view inside the human body without needing invasive and potentially dangerous surgeries. A device made for Apollo astronauts to drive the Lunar Rover with one hand led to a similar technology called the Unistik Controller for helping quadriplegics get around with relative ease in their wheelchairs, certainly making their daily lives easier.

Not all benefits come from manned space missions. Our robot satellites and space probes have greatly contributed to our expanding knowledge since Sputnik 1 entered Earth orbit in October of 1957. Imagine how limited our weather forecasting would be without meteorology satellites. Thousands of lives have been saved from oncoming hurricanes over the decades because electronic eyes in space monitored the paths of those devastating storms. This vital information allows authorities to warn residents in the way of hurricanes to reach safety in time. Other types of Earth monitoring craft have kept track of plant growth to improve our understanding of the environment and watch foreign military actions to guard against sneak attacks.

Communications satellites have allowed us to talk to anyone anywhere across the globe at the speed of light. Watching television broadcasts and receiving cell phone calls and e-mails from even remote places are routine occurrences, thanks to these tireless machines high above us.

Like a newly born infant, space science is our future.

I hope these examples have helped to create a better understanding of why people like the astronauts of the space shuttle Columbia and the many thousands of others who work in the aerospace industries have dedicated their lives—in certain instances to the fullest extent—to space exploration and development. They weren’t doing it for some esoteric, abstract goal; they were playing truly important parts to improve all of our lives physically, intellectually, and culturally.

The next time you hear about a space mission being launched, know that it is yet another piece of our lives and our future being dedicated by your fellow human beings who see the true value of space exploration for us all. Some information gathered might seem abstract, but it may have significant uses we cannot even comprehend at present. As English physicist Michael Faraday once said when asked of the possible use for one of his inventions, “What use is a newborn baby?” Like a newly born infant, space science is our future.