Lately, I have been captivated by the illustrious careers of those working with NASA and other space agencies over the last decades. Sunita Williams, a veteran of manned spaceflight and multiple record holder in the field of aeronautics, recently spoke to an audience of schoolchildren and as one of those present, I came home with a wider outlook on space research.
Over the last few years, the image of the International Space Station (ISS) has permeated all of our minds as the home of space research. As Ms Williams described to us, the ISS is indeed of importance to scientists on the ground, who direct experiments and record statistics over radio. It is valuable enough for its decommission to be postponed by three years to 2024. However, it looks dated in relation to the plans that space agencies and independent organisations have for this century.
We must therefore ask, who will be granted with the revered opportunity to take part in upcoming space programmes? Will a career in aeronautics be restricted only to nationals of certain countries? Astronaut training takes place in the US, Japan, Canada, Russia and, more recently, some European countries. It is already apparent that the traditional players in the field are being joined by others with much human capital to contribute, but the situation is far from inclusive. Certain countries have developed equipment or sent probes into space, but find themselves unable to contribute native manpower – supposedly because their population is not sufficiently developed.
India is such a country; its space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, has sent dozens of satellites into geosynchronous orbit and Low Earth Orbit, an orbit relatively close to the Earth. Those satellites, designed to observe the earth, have benefited the nation in a domestic sense by providing information about the condition of the atmosphere and seas around India to meteorological and maricultural institutes. But this country has not been able to contribute personnel to the global space race, which is increasingly focused on sending astronauts to live in space for extended periods of time.
Scientists on the ground often have to turn their research to more earthly pursuits. Dr. Kumar Krishen, who started space research at a university in India and continued it after he won a research grant at Kansas State University, entered the field with Microwave Remote Sensing directed at the Moon. This allowed him to predict the properties of moon rock with impressive accuracy prior to the Apollo 11 landing. However, in the following decades, he turned his research to remote sensing oil spills on the world’s ocean and surface moisture on the soils of Africa. He was also commissioned to create equipment for hyperthermia in the treatment of cancer. These contributions are no doubt highly valuable, but they raise the question – why are so many space scientists assigned to domestic projects on earth instead? Only a select few have the backing of their space agencies and can commit themselves to outer space exploration.
This exclusive club includes Ms. Williams, who told us how she had been personally affected as a global citizen. She confessed that once in space, she did not actively seek out world news or ask for information on pressing international conflicts. Did the constant panoramic view of the globe, then, reinforce the idea that people from all countries are the same?
Not completely. Even with the amount of detachment from the Earth that space provides, differences between countries are discernible in the working of their space staff and spacecraft. The American Space Shuttle is unsettling on takeoff because of the violent disengagement of the rocket, but glides smoothly down to Earth. In contrast, Ms. Williams told us that the Russian Soyuz capsule and related machinery are recognisably smooth on the flight up to the ISS, but more jarring on re-entry. The Soyuz has not changed in the last half-century. Other quirks of individual countries are also quite revealing – for example, in the space launch site of Kazakhstan, a Russian orthodox priest blesses astronauts before launch.
Returning to the issue of whether aeronautics would be an exclusive career option, we see that in the past, space agencies have recruited their astronauts from predominantly military backgrounds. Of course, this is logical when you consider that these people may be fitter, more disciplined and more comfortable with spacecraft than the average civilian, but it could make some slightly uneasy. Perhaps space agencies recognised this, for they now normally accept applications from academics, too – as long as they have a background in science, technology, engineering or maths. These skill bases will supposedly be essential in performing the tasks asked of astronauts, such as monitoring and repairing apparatus, and evaluating health and safety risks.
However, according to Ms. Williams, the biggest disqualifier isn’t the education someone has, but their health. The fitness criteria that one must meet before being selected as an astronaut candidate are painfully inflexible and hard to meet, whether it’s because you come from a developed country with generally sedentary lifestyles and high rates of obesity, or because you come from a developing country whose citizens often do not all have adequate nutrition.
Therefore, as the Earth sends a limited number of its citizens further into space and for longer periods of time, she will not be providing a comprehensive or accurate representation of them all. Nevertheless, the delegation will be an impressive one: those who are healthiest and most disciplined will lead the human race into its newest era of exploration. On Earth we will have a whole league of scientists whose research into the celestial world leads them back to aid their fellow man, rather than leading them away from him. Alongside these scientists will be the many dreamers who will never get to taste the fruits of space – perhaps because they never delved into the world of science, or possibly because their country is not one that has a dedicated space programme. Regardless, the division between those on Earth and those in space will ultimately remain eclipsed by the fact that we all are human.