Why I’m flying to space to do research aboard Virgin Galactic
Unlike researchers in virtually every other field of science, space researchers have long been limited to operating their experiments by remote control. Why? Because for many decades it was simply not possible or not practical to send themselves into space to do their work. This forced us to routinely have to incorporate expensive and often failure prone automation into our experiments to replace the human operator.
But now, that paradigm is shifting, thanks to the development of crew-carrying commercial suborbital space vehicles by companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. These reusable, new-generation spacecraft will fly to space with increasing frequency, and at dramatically lower price points than older spacecraft, even those that do not carry people.
For over a decade now, it’s been recognized that these new vehicles can do much more than just take tourists to space — their original purpose. They also allow scientists and engineering researchers alike to routinely and relatively inexpensively travel into space to do their work.
In October, NASA announced the first selection of a scientist to conduct research aboard a commercial spaceflight mission. I am that scientist, and I will be flying aboard Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship 2.
On that flight, which will reach altitudes over 300,000 feet, I’ll be conducting experiments to further both astronomy and space life sciences.
This is a game-changing move by NASA. Why? Because it represents a normalizing of research in space to be more like other research disciplines, such as field geology, oceanography and volcanology, where researchers do their work themselves in the field, rather than designing, building and testing robots to go in their stead. The end result of this important evolution will be beneficial in many ways.
The most direct benefits will be cost savings, reliability increases and much faster development and turnaround times for the kinds of space experimentation suitable for these vehicles, compared to what automated, robotic experiments have traditionally allowed. But important indirect benefits will also accrue, such as improving the experimental results by putting human judgment in the loop, rather than software, and by creating researchers who have flown in space as classroom role models to help inspire the STEM education that is so integral to our tech economy.
As a first, my upcoming research spaceflight flight for NASA will represent a long-awaited breakthrough, but it is only a beginning. The new administration and Congress should fund NASA to select many more researchers to conduct their research in space this way. That would greatly further the evolution of space research from its 20th century roots using robotics as proxies for research scientists to a 21st century future of routine and productive work by researchers, themselves at work in space.
Alan Stern, Ph.D, is a Boulder, Colorado, based planetary scientist based at the Southwest Research Institute.
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