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Rethinking space science, exploration to help solve global problems

Space Tech Expo panel
April 04, 2014

Could a paradigm shift in space science and exploration that aligns businesses with research universities lead to new mining resources, a cure for cancer or even world peace?

Arizona State University’s Jim Bell asked an expert panel to consider new opportunities for academic-commercial stakeholders to partner in the future of space at the recent Space Tech Expo 2014 in Long Beach, Calif. Bell is professor and director of ASU’s NewSpace Initiative, a new university-wide space technology and science program. He is also president of The Planetary Society, the world’s largest public space advocacy organization.

Astronaut and planetary scientist Tom Jones, who performed three spacewalks in 2001 to deliver the Destiny Laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS), hailed a new generation of space exploration: “Not just the government, but also a lot of academic and commercial contributions, will make things go more quickly and more productively.” Considered the centerpiece of ISS, Destiny is a U.S. Laboratory module that provides a world-class, state-of-the-art research facility in a microgravity environment.

According to Jones, who began his career working on asteroids, America is embarking on an era where humans will be revisiting deep space for the first time since the early 1970s. “I think there is an essential role to play for commercial and academic contributors – innovators who can really jazz up and enliven the government’s approach to conducting these large programs that have to span decades.”

Jones suggested in this next chapter of space exploration, we could return to the moon and conduct resource extraction, snare an asteroid and send astronauts to study it, then lead more expeditions to asteroids, and eventually bridge our way to Mars: “Ultimately, I think there’s going to be a way for commercial and academic innovation to really pave the way for the first human expeditions to Mars,” he said.

Cheryl Nickerson, professor in the School of Life Sciences in the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, discussed her collaboration with SpaceX to include her research on upcoming flight experiments. Nickerson is known for her pioneering research in using the microgravity of spaceflight to study host-pathogen interactions that lead to infectious disease. Her research has flown on numerous NASA shuttle missions and the ISS.

She said that academics cannot realistically expect the commercial industry to fund their spaceflight biomedical research projects until the government first commits the funding to enable the breakthrough scientific discoveries, and then commercial interest and engagement will follow. Once the government puts the infrastructure in place, then commercial support will come. As an example, she said the National Institutes of Health is putting money behind biomedical research as soon as it can send funded research to the ISS.

“The NIH is ready to start funding once access to the ISS becomes consistent, so we now have SpaceX and others coming on board to make that happen,” Nickerson said. “The ISS needs the commercial spaceflight industry to succeed and vice versa. It’s not us versus them.

“And the ISS value and potential don’t stop with infectious diseases. Researchers, including my team, have shown incredibly intriguing results with immunological disorders such as cancer, bone and muscle waste and loss diseases, neuro-vestibular disorders and aging.”

Will Pomerantz, vice president of Special Projects for Virgin Galactic, said today’s students researching space science and exploration lack the patience of previous generations. Pomerantz has a degree in earth and planetary sciences, and serves as trustee and chair of the Board of Advisors for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, the world's largest student space organization.

“The next generation is used to faster feedback,” he said. “They don’t deal in decades anymore, they deal in seconds, and that’s never going to happen in classical space flight. It takes too long to get to Pluto.”

Pomerantz said that in order to attract more young people to the industry, a concern expressed by aerospace CEOs and NASA leaders, student researchers need more time working on a lab bench and more opportunities to fail.

“They’re never going to get experience if experience comes with ten-million-dollar price tags,” he explained. “We need the cheap, easy ways to fail. When I hire people, I’m looking for them to have run a project, probably slammed it into the ground going Mach 3, and to have figured out why that happened. And I know they’re never going to do that again.”

All of the panelists expressed the need for the U.S. to engage the public in future space exploration. However, veteran astronaut and Naval aviator Michael Lopez-Alegria, a self-described “steely-eyed test pilot,” admitted he was skeptical when a citizen participant, Anousheh Ansari, joined his crew on a Soyuz flight to the ISS. Lopez-Alegria holds three NASA records, including for the longest space flight of 215 days. He currently serves as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“When I flew with Anousheh, I was struck by how she kept in touch with folks on the ground by posting a blog about her experience,” he said. “And the reach she had was unbelievable.”

Lopez-Alegria said he realized then that perhaps the best way to advance space exploration was to get the public on board – literally. He described what is dubbed the “overview effect” attributed to people who have flown in space that helps them to see the world differently.

“People are absolutely fascinated by the experience of going to space,” he said. “And when you do, you come back slightly changed,” he said. “Your perspective is more global and more tolerant. You don’t see famine, you don’t see disease, you don’t see wars.

“You see Earth, a beautiful thing that you want to protect. And I think the degree to which we can extend that experience to more people is going to result in a better place for all of us to live.”

ASU’s Bell credited panel members with helping to pave the way for a new era of collaboration: "These kinds of conversations among academic researchers, leading industry colleagues and veteran space explorers represent critical first steps in building long-term partnerships between ASU and the exciting new entrepreneurial space businesses and opportunities that are starting to emerge.”