It was a bright spot in the long, dark tunnel that has been the year 2020. In the midst 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 yearned simply to go to a restaurant or just leave the house, two humans left the 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 the space agency, Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX with the aim of kicking off a new era of human space exploration. Beyond being the first crewed space launch from US soil in nine years, the program will provide a big boost to science in orbit.
For more than six decades, space programs run by the US, other countries and now private companies have been developing technologies and making new discoveries in the service of solving hard problems. Some advancements, like satellite-based communications, are well known, and others, like a NASA-supported method of disarming landmines, might surprise those who see big space exploration budgets (NASA’s 2020 budget is $22.6 billion) as a waste of money. But these solutions usually end up having applications that improve the day-to-day lives of Earth-bound humans, including breakthroughs that just might help save us from the ongoing pandemic and other major problems we face.
“On the International Space Station, researchers are taking advantage of microgravity to produce human tissue and develop new vaccines,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Because things behave differently in space, these are medical advancements that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
The inauguration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which seats up to four more astronauts than the three-person Russian Soyuz craft NASA has used exclusively to ferry crews into orbit since 2011, also brings a research boost. More seats means more hands available to do more hours of science in space. And that science could have real-life implications.
“There is the expectation that the amount of time allocated for conducting science on station will approximately double,” Patrick O’Neill, spokesperson for the International Space Station US National Laboratory, says of the coming Commercial Crew era.
Some of those added crew hours may go to less life-critical experiments with commercial partners like Adidas, which has been studying how particle foam molding in microgravity could affect the performance and comfort of its shoes. (There’s a Space Jam joke to be made there somewhere.)
More importantly, more astronaut hours could assist the US government’s multibillion-dollar effort to secure millions of doses of experimental coronavirus vaccines from big pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur. The French multinational drug-maker has been working with NASA and the ISS National Laboratory to investigate how human immune cells change in the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station. And with worldwide demand for doses of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, insights from space could be the key to making the process cost-effective and delivering the vaccine to the masses sooner.
Rachel Clemens, innovation manager of the ISS National Lab, wrote in March that life sciences research into how various cells and systems respond in microgravity could be particularly useful. The studies could lead to better methods of vaccine production and improved vaccine efficacy.
“Cells in culture change their physiology in interesting ways in microgravity,” Clemens wrote. “While scientists are not studying COVID-19 in space, research on the International Space Station (ISS) does tell us a lot about microbes.”
The dawn of Commercial Crew and the return of crewed launches to American shores is a culmination, of sorts, of a quiet renaissance in cutting-edge research that’s been happening about 250 miles above our heads. Over the past decade, new, high-tech facilities available to both public and commercial interests on the ISS have driven a big increase in life sciences research.
Some of the newer resources on the space station include DNA sequencing, bio fabrication and autonomous equipment that supports research with minimal supervision from the crew. Recent research includes sending genetically edited “mighty mice” with almost twice the muscle mass of normal mice into orbit to help scientists investigate ways to fight muscle wasting 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 to 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 named CIMON-2 that will remind space enthusiasts of a certain age of a certain HAL.
The ISS, which was designated a federally sponsored National Lab in 2005, is the best place for doing hands-on research beyond the pull of gravity with an eye on applications meant for use back on Earth. It’s been so successful as both a science lab 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 started more than 60 years ago, even before humans left the Earth for the first time. We continue to heavily rely on the advancements like satellite-based connectivity, Earth observation and global positioning systems. They all grew out of 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 deal with big problems, you want to have access to as many solution sets as possible,” says Rich Cooper, vice president for strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit education and advocacy group.
He pointed to the example of the flame retardant fabric and breathing system firefighters use when they enter a burning structure, both of which came from space research. Astronauts were the first to test heart monitors used in hospitals around the world. Neil Armstrong wore the then-nascent cardiac 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 more cost-efficient (and shockingly attractive) way of treating sewage, an advancement that major cities began adopting in the 1980s. You also can thank the space agency for your scratch-resistant lenses, cordless tools, Tempur-pedic mattress, LASIK eye surgery, and the insoles in many running and hiking shoes, just to name a few.
Science aboard the ISS will ramp up when the first operational Commercial Crew mission sends four astronauts to the station in October.
“Space is a force multiplier across every infrastructure, industry and community,” Cooper says. “That creates opportunity as much as it creates inspiration.”
The European Space Agency uses its Earth observation satellites to monitor all sorts of changes happening on our planet, from volcanic activity to oil spills, deforestation and urban development. Or as ESA Downstream Gateway Officer Donatella Ponziana described it, “We take the pulse of the Earth.”
This year, ESA is measuring the planet’s vitals to help officials glean new insights into 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, harvests and air quality.
Hardware originally developed for space is also assisting in the fight against COVID-19 on the ground.
Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that’s created circuits and other spacecraft components for a few decades, wants to bring its space solutions back to Earth.
“Space applications require a fairly significant complexity in the design. They also require certainty of results — what you design actually has to do what it’s supposed to do and it has to do it for a long time in space,” says Chris Clardy, Cobham’s vice president for space business development, strategy and technology. “And they typically are in very tight form factors. Size, weight and power matters, and they have to be very low-power.”
Cobham designed the first breathing regulator used by John Glenn during Project Mercury, which sent the initial batch of US astronauts into space in the early 1960s. Today its components are on the ISS and power robotic probes scattered around the solar system, including NASA’s Juno spacecraft circling Jupiter, the Parker Solar Probe and Osiris-Rex. Cobham components are also used in industrial settings, like airports, hospitals and other medical facilities for everything from scanning luggage to mining.
The application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, the company has modified for hospital equipment like computerized tomography scanners need to be reliable and hardened enough to survive constant exposure to radiation, just like spacecraft. They’re now being used to detect and sequence the genome of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“As a space technology developer, we select technology and we design all the way down to the transistor level to survive these radiation effects,” Clardy says. “These contributions by our customers have been essential in the world’s 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 matters that components are small, low-power and resilient.
Forget the sky. Imagination is the limit
It’s not just robotic probes and projects in orbit that deliver benefits for us humans. Planned deep-space expeditions should bring about some innovations as well.
“As has been the case throughout NASA’s history, investments in NASA and our ambitious missions, like the Artemis program, will lead to new technological capabilities for our nation and the world,” Bridenstine says. 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, a current NASA challenge that asks university students to help solve the problem of highly abrasive lunar 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 advancements won’t come just from humans, either. I’ll certainly be in line to own anything inspired by NASA’s shape-shifting robot concept that looks even cooler than any Star Wars droid. The system is really a series of robots that can fly, swim, float and tumble over any terrain, abilities that could help locate victims trapped in debris because of natural disasters or other emergency situations.
Last month, NASA launched the Perseverance Rover on a seven-month journey to Mars carrying a tiny helicopter named Ingenuity in its belly. Ingenuity was completed in 2017, and the company that built it, AeroVironment, took 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 different plant health issues. AeroVironment’s chief marketing officer, Steve Gitlin, told NASA Spinoff this year that the agency’s requirements for ruggedness “certainly taught us much about reliability in harsh environments, which serves our customers in the military and on the farm.”
Space will save Earth… and humanity, too
Incremental improvements to life on Earth are one thing, but with climate change and the threat of future pandemics facing the planet, saving both it and our species are much more complicated. But two men with about a quarter trillion dollars in net worth between them have audacious plans to leverage space and their wealth to take them on.
Musk and SpaceX are planning to travel far beyond the ISS, aiming to build a city on Mars and make humans a “multiplanetary” species, just in case some catastrophe should befall our home planet. This grandiose vision invites the quick retort that we ought to be solving climate change and the other big problems facing Earth before we go messing up another planet. But the process of making Mars habitable will almost certainly yield insights and innovations that will help make Earth more sustainable.
“Very little that pertains to living on Mars in the early years will involve off-the-shelf 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 the water and oxygen for supporting human life in the Martian environment. One such experiment is on its way to the red planet aboard the Perseverance rover. The instrument known as Moxie, for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, aims to pull oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide. It’s easy to imagine how insights gleaned from this effort might be put into use on other worlds where there’s an excess of CO2, like say… Earth.
Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has his own vision for using space to save Earth. Rather than going all the way to Mars, the sometimes-richest-human-on-Earth wants to move as many polluting industries as possible into orbit, onto asteroids and to the surface of the moon. The goal is to preserve Earth for life and to put activities that can hinder it somewhere else.
Of course, billionaires can afford to think big, and both visions are still a long way off. But the launch of a brand new spacecraft like Musk’s Crew Dragon is a step forward and a welcome dose of uplifting news in trying times. Keeping an eye on the prize of technological progress might just help end this pandemic a little sooner, and give us fancy new space-foam shoes to wear when we can start eating out again.