Sun. Jul 14th, 2024
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    Quick read: Why yesterday was a big deal - space travel 4

    If you have read any of my previous posts, one thing you know about is I am a sucker for space travel. Be it in movies, games, novels you name it. Some of my Wits Business School classmates will recall how I was excited for the release of No Man’s Sky. 18 quintillion planets with a “procedurally generated deterministic open world universe” full of biodiversity where you gather materials, build spaceships and bases, name discoveries, and survive hostile flora, fauna and space pirates with the goal of reaching the “center of the universe”. Granted it wasn’t great at release but it captured my imagination about exploring space. The subsequent updates have put it in a much better shape so they are forgiven.

    Yesterday, SpaceX and NASA decided to team up and send the first astronauts into space. Apart from my sci-fi fed fascination with space, this was a big deal because a government agency partnered with a private organisation to resurrect what I would argue to be one of if not humanity’s greatest achievement in the previous millennium. One of my role models is Neil deGrasse Tyson, an Astrophysicist, Educator and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium. He has been an advocate of the US reigniting the space euphoria that was in 1960s because of the achievements the world gained from such an endeavour. I do not agree when he says it is only governments that can take the lead in this. I think a partnership like the one we partially experienced yesterday is what will take humanity forward – government funds and private companies research and execute. According to NASA, if they had to develop the Falcon 9 rocket themselves, it would have costed them US$9 billion but Elon Musk’s SpaceX developed both the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 for US$390 million in total! This public-private partnership is what will take space travel forward.

    I went online and I read comments where people wondered why we spend money on space travel and not use it to solve problems down here. For me the reason is simple: space travel presents humanity with a whole different set of challenges needing cleverly created solutions. Space is unlike any place on Earth. No matter how dangerous a volcano is, you still have gravity to hold you down, for example. The challenges of space travel be it the hostility of the vacuum, radiation, or sheer size of the distances between everything will push humanity to the edge of what we know and solving them will result in:

    1. better fuel and propulsion systems as we cannot refuel in space
    2. better understanding of biochemistry, human physiology and anatomy because humans have to live long enough to survive the long arduous journey
    3. better agricultural methods to feed the pioneers
    4. better waste management
    5. better communication methods due the distance the messages have to travel between Earth and the spacecraft (even light from the Sun takes 8 minutes to reach us here on Earth)

    To solve these problems, many disciplines will be called upon from biochemists, doctors, physicists and even ones you would not immediately think of for example sociologists, politicians, and lawyers – it is not too far fetched to reason that the pioneers will need some form of social order on their years long journey to whatever destination we send them to. This is not exactly what SpaceX and NASA worked on yesterday. They were just going into the edge of space and back but it is definitely a seed that will lead to future space exploration and humanity as a whole will reap the benefits.

    To convince you even further, with the little space travel we have done (to be frank, the International Space Stations, ISS, is just 408 km above the Earth’s surface so that doesn’t really count as space travel), here are some inventions we enjoy on a daily basis that came NASA research:

    1. Artificial limbs
    2. Scratch resistant lenses
    3. Insulin pump
    4. Firefighting equipment
    5. Dustbusters
    6. Laser eye surgery
    7. Structural shock absorbers
    8. Solar cells
    9. Water filtration
    10. Wireless headsets
    11. Airplane winglets
    12. Invisible braces
    13. Freeze dried foods
    14. Cellphone cameras
    15. CAT scans
    16. Baby formula
    17. Air purifiers
    18. Resistance-based exercise machines
    19. Infrared ear thermometers
    20. Ice-resistant airplanes
    21. Portable computers
    22. LEDs
    23. Computer mouse
    24. Athletic shoes
    25. Memory foam

    It’s impossible for me to list all inventions or ones inspired by space travel. Some are not physical for example Earth Day. It can be traced to the famous Earthrise photograph taken by NASA and astronaut William Anders from lunar orbit on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”.

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    I hope this article has given you a glimpse into why space travel is necessary if humanity is going to progress. If we colonise another planet, what laws should we put in place? Which form of governance do we emulate? If there is none currently here on Earth, how can we develop it and improve the ones we have? Last week I presented to some honours students from the University of Johannesburg over a Zoom call on graduate employability; different topic to this article. Thanks to the NASA’s interest in space, we can work from home and make use of internet signals bounced through numerous communication satellites. After the presentation, one student asked me what keeps me up at night. My answer is always the same and that is human life is just but a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. I’m not going to live long enough to see humanity become a multi-planetary species and that sucks. I’d love to see everything I grew up watching on my favourite movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the thought that reincarnation could be true offers no solace because I’m not enjoying the dreams of my previous lives who probably wished to see tablets and mobile phones they saw on Star Trek that I am using today. Okay, I’m about to discuss metaphysics and that’s digressing from the point of this article.

    Since NASA-SpaceX could not launch yesterday due to bad weather, let’s meet again on Saturday and witness history in the making!

    It’s a brave new world.

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