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Believe it or not, space exploration has been saving and improving lives all over the world for decades. In fact, one could even argue that astronomy and planetary science were fundamental in shaping civilization as we know it.
When many people think of space exploration, they may imagine astronauts floating around on the ISS or hopping around on the Moon. It can be difficult to see why activity on the ISS, the Moon, Mars, and beyond would be worthwhile for people on Earth. Why should we contribute money to space programs when there are problems we still need to solve on Earth?
The night sky has been used for navigation for millennia. The further humans have ventured into space, the more we have learned about life on Earth – its plants, animals, atmosphere, and people. Simply put, Earth needs space. It sparks new innovations and discoveries that are crucial to the modern world.
Invention and Innovation
Many people aren’t aware of how many everyday inventions are the result of space exploration. Long before astronauts blast off to leave the atmosphere, hundreds upon hundreds of hours go into developing new technologies designed for the unusual environment of space. From scratch-resistant lenses to solar panels and even artificial limbs, dozens of items that are key to daily life on Earth were invented and developed in space exploration programs.
Some of these inventions came about because NASA and other space agencies were trying to solve unique problems astronauts faced in zero gravity or on the Moon. For example, the insulin pump resulted from equipment designed to monitor astronauts’ vitals in space.
This is known as a “spinoff”—an invention scientists originally created for space exploration the later modified or adapted into a consumer or civilian technology. LASIK eye surgery is another famous example of a space exploration spinoff technology.
Over the past few decades, scientists have invented numerous other remarkable technologies aboard the International Space Station. The ISS is, first and foremost, a laboratory. Astronauts don’t simply float around for fun during their trips into orbit. Science experiments and research projects are always underway at the ISS.
This research has led to the development of some incredible technologies and scientific discoveries that have had huge impacts on life on Earth. Even living aboard the ISS for extended periods of time has sparked innovation. For example, NASA developed next-gen water purification systems for the ISS, and that technology went on to help improve access to clean water on Earth.
Using Space for Discovery
While the technological inventions sparked by space exploration are amazing, the scientific discoveries are even more so. Space exploration is responsible for far more than identifying new galaxies millions of lightyears away. Important research and breakthroughs in biology, medicine, physics, and more are the result of space exploration. Phenomena such as gravity, fluid dynamics, and the atmosphere itself wouldn’t have been discovered if not for our ventures into space.
The ISS is at the heart of these advances, with astronauts contributing to numerous cutting-edge research projects every year.
ISS Medical Research
In fact, space exploration has even helped create life-saving medical treatments. For example, in 2018 ISS astronauts tested an advanced new cancer treatment that doctors were unable to test on Earth, as astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor explains in a zero-g video. Astronauts have also helped develop medical treatments to fight muscle atrophy and bone loss.
A 2020 experiment used a unique implantable device to grow muscles in mice aboard the ISS (yes, the mice flew into space). The technology researched in this project could change the lives of millions of people on Earth who suffer from muscular conditions. Another project is researching artificial cartilage that could help millions of people with things like knee injuries.
The Unique Environment of Space
These projects are just a few examples of the critical role of space exploration in scientific research and discovery. When scientists are trying to understand how something works, they often subject it to unusual circumstances to see how it responds.
The microgravity that astronauts experience in orbit aboard the ISS is an incredibly unique and valuable “unusual circumstance” where scientists can discover new things.
The above-mentioned research projects would not have been physically possible on Earth. Taking those experiments to microgravity allowed scientists to study cells, biology, and the human body in ways they otherwise couldn’t have, making discoveries that otherwise would have been inaccessible. There have been dozens of these incredible breakthroughs aboard the ISS over the past few decades.
One cannot overstate the importance of satellites in the modern world. Satellites are critical for so many everyday things all over the world. If all of the satellites orbiting Earth right now were to suddenly shut off and stop working, we would be in trouble.
Satellites help planes navigate, provide Internet access to millions, help first responders save lives, allow us to monitor weather, make Google Maps and GPS possible, and even help us fight climate change.
Without space exploration, there would be no satellites quietly orbiting Earth today and none of these technologies would be possible. What is particularly fascinating about this is that when Roscosmos, the Soviet Space Agency, launched the first satellite into space in 1957, no one could have predicted just how crucial satellites would one day become.
People knew that the launch of Sputnik was groundbreaking, but mostly in the context of its sheer mystery – it seemed like the Soviet Union could do virtually anything with this new technology, namely spy on the US.
Without that first step into the stars with an unassuming little satellite, the modern world would look completely different. For example, the convenient maps we have on our phones wouldn’t be possible without the help of satellites. Farmers all over the world rely on satellites for agricultural data that is crucial to supplying the global food supply.
For example, one NASA satellite known as SMAP was launched specifically to monitor water in surface soil on Earth. This data, which NASA makes available worldwide for free, improves weather forecasting, helps predict floods, monitors droughts, tracks energy and carbon cycles, and helps improve crop productivity. The SMAP satellite has a beneficial impact on the whole world, even if we can’t see it right in front of us.
The Opportunities of the Commercial Space Industry
Going to space is expensive, costing billions of dollars per year. Luckily, there are also a growing number of opportunities for economic prosperity in space. Throughout the 20th century and the 2000s, space travel was limited to explorers hired by the national space agencies of federal governments, such as NASA. That’s no longer the case today.
For over ten years now, private companies have been powering innovation in spaceflight technologies and expanding access to the stars. For example, private spaceflight companies like SpaceX have allowed more organizations to get satellites into orbit, which help with communications and scientific research. The FAA has regulations in place to make sure these launches are performed as safely as possible.
The commercial space industry isn’t just for paid rocket launches, either. There are many economic opportunities in space that could enrich life on Earth. Examples include tourism, transportation, manufacturing, communications, energy, mining and even agriculture.
Tourism and Transportation
Space tourism is a staple of science fiction, but it’s a real-life possibility. One of the many benefits of the commercial spaceflight industry is that it is making it cheaper, safer and easier to launch people and objects into space. With more people working on launch technology, it is undergoing rapid innovation and creating new supply chains.
As a result, by the end of the 21st century space travel could be available to the masses, much like air travel was in the mid-20th century. Space planes could take people halfway across the world in an hour or two. People could take a vacation to an orbiting space station hotel and see Earth from afar. More scientists and academic institutions could have access to the wealth of research opportunities possible in orbit, as well.
Space is already vital to daily life for billions of people on Earth. Communications companies use satellites in orbit to transmit signals and data around the world. This is how many people access the Internet and use phones.
Studies estimate that at least 2.9 billion people around the world don’t have access to the Internet today. Most people in the U.S. access the internet through cable services, which don’t rely on satellites. However, it requires extensive time, funding and resources to install the necessary infrastructure for cable internet. Satellites can reach people anywhere as long as they have the right receiver technology.
The commercial space industry is making launches to orbit more affordable and readily available. By making it easier for communications organizations to get satellites to orbit, more people can access the Internet.
Most people have heard of solar power today. In fact, millions have solar panels installed at their homes and businesses. Earth is missing out on a big opportunity for renewable energy, though — space-based solar power.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that at least 30% of solar power that reaches Earth is reflected away by the atmosphere. This energy could be captured and utilized by launching solar panels into space. In fact, solar panels are the main power source of the International Space Station. So, this technology has already been tested on a small scale.
It will take more engineering innovations to make space-based solar power a feasible source of renewable energy. The potential economic gains of accessing this new power source may motivate commercial spaceflight companies to fund research and test programs for space-based solar in the years ahead.
Additionally, our own Moon could be a game-changing source of clean energy. The bleak gray surface of the Moon may seem boring at first glance. However, lunar soil, known as regolith, contains a valuable resource known as Helium-3. This powerful isotope could be used to generate clean nuclear power using fusion reactors. Numerous commercial space companies are already developing plans and technologies for mining lunar regolith for Helium-3.
Protecting the Human Species
Finally, space exploration protects and unites the human species. This can be seen on a small scale aboard the ISS. One day, though, not too far in the future, explorers from all over the world will come together to return to the Moon and even set foot on Mars.
On a cosmic scale, the survival of the human species relies on us becoming multi-planetary. Back on Earth, learning about our two closest neighbors, Mars and Venus, can help scientists figure out how to keep Earth’s atmosphere and environment healthy for millennia to come.
New Inventions and Discoveries
Space exploration has always led to incredible new inventions and discoveries that improve life for everyone on Earth. There’s no telling what new innovations could be discovered on expeditions to the Moon and Mars. There is already at least one next-gen space exploration technology that’s having a big impact on Earth: 3D printed construction.
Using 3D printed concrete made from Martian soil, NASA could create durable, permanent structures on Mars using autonomous robots. It’s no surprise that at the same time that this cutting-edge project is underway at NASA, the world’s largest 3D printed neighborhood is also set for construction in Austin, Texas. The increased R&D surrounding 3D printed construction for space exploration could help develop the technology on Earth and end the housing shortage.
A Multi-Planetary Neighborhood
On a grander scale, it is almost certain that humanity will one day colonize the Moon, Mars, and potentially even Venus or one day the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. With humans living on four or more different worlds in our solar system, there would be more resources to go around and less chance of something catastrophic ending human civilization.
Interestingly, Mars and Venus’s atmospheres are both alternate versions of Earth, one too cold and thin and the other too hot and dense. This could potentially help us study and prevent long-term climate change. In the distant future, we have even been able to terraform both Mars and Venus to have comfortable, Earth-like surfaces.
Advancing All of Humanity in the Stars
Space exploration isn’t about traversing the stars just to see what we find. It is about making new discoveries that broaden our understanding of the universe and humanity – our biology, our planet, our future in the solar system.
The scientific research conducted for and through space exploration has repeatedly led to life-changing innovations for everyone on Earth. By continuing to explore the universe around us, we can advance the entire human civilization, improving lives and expanding horizons for a better future.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 3, 2022 and was updated on March 28, 2023 to provide readers with more updated information.
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