Space — it has been of great interest to humans long before technology made space exploration possible. Since the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration- more commonly known as NASA – in 1958, billions of dollars have been spent on developing technology to enhance space exploration., Despite the fact that the global economy continues to suffer shocks as a result of the ongoing worldwide pandemic many governments are choosing to fund space exploration, posing the question: Are there any benefits to continuing to fund space exploration during a global pandemic, where human health is the top priority?
Eight Benefits of Space Exploration
The Canadian Space Agency has identified eight benefits of space exploration, many of which are related to health and safety, environmental protection, and education. The benefits include:
1. Improving Health Care
Broadening our knowledge of the human body through science experiments performed in space can potentially transform surgery on earth by innovating operating rooms: the same technology used in the International Space Station (ISS) was used to create robots such as neuroArm, a robot that is able to perform brain surgeries that are impossible for humans. It also makes brain surgeries safer and more efficient. Detecting and treating breast cancer can also be innovated through the incorporation of the same technology used in Canadian space robots that perform maintenance and heavy lifting to develop IGAR (Image-Guided Autonomous Robot) — a robot capable of performing precise biopsies to detect breast cancer while decreasing discomfort for the patient.
Space exploration can also allow medical professionals to provide medical assistance to those in remote areas by employing a similar system that is used to track the health of astronauts from earth in the form of wearable technology. For example, a wireless smart shirt is used by the Bio-Monitor which records and measures data such as blood pressure and heart rate.
Scientists have also deepened their knowledge of the human cardiovascular system through close analysis of how the blood vessels of astronauts change as they travel through space. Similarly, they are able to treat postpartum hemorrhage by giving women pressure garments that use the same technology of the g-suit, which is used to decrease symptoms of cardiovascular deconditioning on astronauts when arriving on earth.
2. Improving Our Day-to-Day Lives
The same technology developed by engineers in the space sector is often developed into everyday products used on earth. These include: memory foam, air purifiers, enriched baby formula, and cordless vacuum cleaners. Other improvements include enhanced GPS services, which are used every day in cell phones for location services, monitoring changes in weather, and connecting people worldwide via telecommunications.
The creation of a water recovery system for astronauts can allow nations to improve access to clean water through the development of infrastructure and irrigation systems that can be used to grow food in remote locations and harsh climates on earth.
3. Sparking Interest in Youth
Today’s youth are the next generation’s engineers, thinkers, and scientists. School trips, internships, and student jobs provide opportunities for young individuals to experience first-hand the work that goes into space exploration.
4. Protecting Our Planet and Our Environment
Satellites are used in a number of ways — they help with monitoring climate change and protect habitats and wildlife by using GPSs to track movements of different animal species. Satellites have also proven to be useful tools to measure damages associated with increased pollution levels such as the thinning of the ozone layer and the environmental impacts of oil spills.
5. Enhancing Safety on Earth
The use of space technology such as satellites aids nations in predicting natural disasters and enhances s emergency relief efforts by improving readiness when providing aid to affected regions from satellite images. Measuring ground movements helps to increase the structural integrity of infrastructures by monitoring and detecting movements, which allows the energy sector to act before pipelines are compromised by reducing stress. With this, bridges, airports and roads are able to be protected by using the satellite imaging technology, RADARSAT-2 (Radar Satellite-2.
Shock absorption technology used in spacecraft makes buildings and bridges earthquake resistant, and the same heat-resistant fabrics used in astronaut suits are used to protect firefighters. Asteroids are also tracked using satellites to predict if they get close to earth.
6. Promoting Cooperation between Countries Around the World
The International Space Station (ISS) requires the cooperation of space agencies in a number of countries including Canada, Europe, Japan, the U.S., and Russia. This mandatory cooperation ensures collaborative success by developing a niche of expertise in which nations can focus on separate aspects of the same project. For example, Canada designed the Canadarm by addressing the need for a grappling arm that could manipulate objects in orbit. This cooperation allows astronauts to see the world from afar, as a planet without borders.
7. Creating Scientific and Technical Jobs
More than 20,000 jobs are created from the space industry in Canada, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) invests in small and medium-sized enterprises related to space, thus providing opportunities to Canadian companies. Additionally, investing in space exploration helped strengthen business ties with the European Space Agency for space-related exports which totalled $451 million in 2018.
8. Making Scientific Discoveries
Continuously pushing our boundaries to explore the unknown has the potential to discover new scientific breakthroughs that will prove to be beneficial to humans. Enhanced space exploration and improved technology allow scientists to better understand the universe and provide updated information to the public.
An example of this is the Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit that will act as a science laboratory on the moon, easing travel to the moon so governments may focus on researching and testing new technologies on the lunar surface.
Alongside these eight benefits, there are also unapparent advantages that are not listed by the CSA.
Space Exploration as a Symbol of National Power
Former U.S. President Donald Trump once stated: “America will land the first woman on the moon — and the United States will be the first nation to plant its flag on Mars”. This achievement would be seen as a symbol of national power, acting as evidence to a country’s power to do the unthinkable: travelling to Mars. It is argued that the development of Sputnik in Russia convinced the U.S. that they were falling behind on technological advancements to their rival, ultimately causing what is known as the ‘space race’: a competition to display superiority between countries, especially the U.S. and the Soviet Union, after WWII.
This competition still isn’t over, as the Department of Defense states that both Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have plans to dispute national interests (denying their freedom and access to operate in space) and disestablish and deteriorate American influence and power on the globe. As such, the United States Space Command is using space exploration as a means to attain power that will allow the United States to protect and defend its country from their competitors.
Disadvantages of Space Exploration
The Canadian Space Agency outlines disadvantages to the human body related to space exploration:
1. Severe Bone Loss
While perceived as a minor consequence for short flights, astronauts lose an average of 1-2% of their bone density during longer flights that are over one month. Upon arrival to earth, astronauts are at an increased risk of fractures and breaks. As such, they perform weight-bearing exercises in space by using restraints on a treadmill, and by going through rehabilitation. For every month, astronauts need two months for the bones to recover.
2. The Risk of Decompression Sickness
From the consequential and quick decrease in astronomic pressure, astronauts are at risk of Decompression Sickness, which occurs when nitrogen forms bubbles from escaping the blood and body tissues due to the decline in pressure. These bubbles can cause numbness, tingling, joint pain and death. It’s difficult to measure how many astronauts experience decompression sickness, as some may not report symptoms. This is because their qualification may be compromised during pilot training if they report symptoms during certain training activities. For instance in 1996, both retired and active pilots answered in an anonymous questionnaire that most (75%) experienced symptoms at least once. However, they rarely reported their symptoms.
Similar to decompression sickness, astronauts may experience Muscular Atrophy, a process where the muscles deteriorate and weaken due to inadequate use. During an average flight, astronauts can lose up to 20% of muscle mass in 5-11 days. This can become dangerous when performing demanding emergency procedures when arriving into earth’s gravitational field. For most, muscle strength and loss can be regained, however, this is a serious issue for longer flights and for some, their bone density will never be the same. To prevent this, astronauts spend two and a half hours daily exercising in space, and upon arrival to earth they may possibly use electrical muscle stimulation to maintain muscle mass and strength in the future.
As one of the primary threats to astronauts’ health, radiation exposure (being exposed to particles or waves of energy through space or matter) can cause short-term and long-term effects such as an increased risk of sterility, cancer, and cataracts, as well as breaks and changes in DNA molecules. Gene mutations can skip generations, posing a risk to the descendants of those exposed to high amounts of radiation. Treatable short-term effects of radiation exposure include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and changes to the blood. Radiation sickness can be prevented by carefully monitoring their exposure so they do not exceed their limits, and by developing and using new technology such as radiation detectors that may help understand radiation exposure levels.
Other than the disadvantages mentioned above, the CSA also states that astronauts have to endure extreme temperatures, low pressures, and isolation, and confinement. In space, the low pressure will cause our body parts (eyeball, blood, and bile) to boil as the low pressure reduces the boiling point of water, and then we would freeze. For isolation and confinement, a study found that astronauts can suffer from sleep disorders, immune-modulatory changes, fatigue, and an unnatural circadian rhythm, which can disrupt their sleep-wake schedule.
Similar to the benefits, there are disadvantages that are not mentioned by the CSA:
4. Space Exploration Can Be Abused as a Weapon for National Security
NASA confirms that space is vital to national security and “makes the achievements of America’s military possible”. Having space as a weapon gives them space superiority, which allows them to “prevail in a global, all-domain fight”, allowing them to “preserve their way of life”. Other countries are suspected of using space as a weapon, as there have been accusations of Russia creating and launching a “weapon-like projectile” in 2018. Problematically, there is currently no agreement or law banning such weapons.
5. The Increasing Yearly Budget for NASA
It is no secret that space exploration requires a significant amount of investment, and it seems as though that the budget is increasing. The proposed FY (Fiscal Year) 2021 budget by NASA/US government has increased by 12 percent, and the budget request continues to increase until 2023. Officially, NASA’s FY 2021 budget is $23.3 billion, which is a 3% increase from last year’s budget of $22.6 billion.
6. Creates Junk
According to National Geographic, more than 23 000 visible man-made fragments orbit the earth, and most importantly, there are approximately 500,000 smaller fragments that are not trackable. This is problematic as the collisions of these fragments can damage the satellites that scientists and engineers have worked so hard to create and use for the public and environmental safety, and others that the Canada Space Agency listed in their ‘Everyday Benefits of Space Exploration’ section.
7. Ethical Concerns of Sending Animals into Space
Before humans travelled to space, animals such as dogs, monkeys, and chimps. were used to determine whether a country was able to launch a living organism into space and bring it back to earth unharmed. Following the success of Yorick, the first primate to successfully be returned from space, experiments were conducted using mice, rabbits, stray dogs, tortoises, and insects. Experiments are currently being done on mice and seawater creatures, such as jellyfish.
Space Exploration Amidst a Global Pandemic
Should space exploration be of top priority during a global pandemic? Many space agencies seem to think so — when one goes to the main homepage of the Canadian Space Agency, NASA, the European Space Agency, and The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) it’s easy to see how all of them emphasizes their accomplishments, news about future plans, and overall how they’re helping earth.
Regarding COVID-19, the European Space Agency released an article last year that explains how they’ve been helping their technology, services and space data to aid in the response effort. They did this by obtaining information on how space can help earth during and after the outbreak through online seminars. NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Agency also sought ways on helping the earth during the pandemic. All of them partnered to launch a Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, where 15 000 participants from 150 countries used sources from open and government sources to find solutions for the 12 challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, this challenge allowed participants to compare a country’s public health measures and was able to offer possible suggestions to aid in decreasing the negative effects of COVID-19.
Furthermore, the Canadian Space Agency has a section titled ‘Effects of Space on the Body’ when ‘disadvantages of space travel’ is searched on google. It is worth noting that in multiple subsections they end with how they’ve been helping astronauts avoid these negative effects. Canada is not alone in favouring space exploration; NASA lists only five negative consequences of space travel while they provide a list of 15 benefits in the section titled, ‘15 ways the International Space Station is Benefitting Earth’. They also have a 22-page document that provides a detailed analysis of the benefits of space exploration.
Most notably, NASA also gives their reasons for exploring space despite real-world problems: they believe that we shouldn’t let short-term needs affect long-term goals. NASA is working to land the first woman and the next man on the South Pole of the Moon by 2024, prepare for human exploration of Mars, and establish sustainable lunar exploration by the end of the decade as part of the Artemis program, while getting ready for human exploration of Mars. The U.S.seems to consider COVID-19 relief to be a short-term need as they state that the year 2021 is “shaping up to be one of NASA’s busiest yet”.
Despite all of their attempts to help, it is questionable whether COVID-19, amidst pre-existing social issues such as poverty, homelessness, gender inequality, water and food shortages, unemployment, and overpopulation,. should be considered a short-term issue.
Most importantly, the world is lacking in both PPE (personal protective equipment) and COVID-19. While healthcare workers are working to help others, they are the ones risking their health as the supplies of PPE is very limited. Due to this need, the prices of PPE have increased, and it can take months for supplies to be delivered. According to WHO, around 89 million medical masks are required during the pandemic each month, along with 76 million for gloves, and 1.6 million for gloves.
For vaccines, first world countries have already received vaccines to administer, however for countries lacking income, they may have to wait until 2024 for the majority of their population to be vaccinated as each country must negotiate to buy COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, these countries may lack the means of transporting, storing, and distributing the vaccine. The WHO’s COVAX program has plans to cover 20% of the vulnerable in middle-income and poor countries. However, the program is lacking funds, so this plan may be impossible to accomplish.
Considering how the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping human history, the fact governments still view space exploration as a long-term goal that should not be adjusted to short-term needs is alarming. It has been reported that the pandemic will eventually end but COVID-19 may become a seasonal illness similar to the flu. Considering the time and money required to rebuild human health and the global economy, would it not be more beneficial for governments to divert funds from space exploration and put them towards creating and administering vaccines, and providing PPE to healthcare workers? It seems as though there are many social and economic issues that need to be addressed on earth that are being overlooked due to the intrigue surrounding space exploration.