Every once in a while, a confluence of discoveries, events and initiatives results in a breakthrough so significant that it propels the entire world to a higher level, redefining what is possible in so many different fields. This breakthrough is taking centerstage now, as the new era of space exploration — catalyzed by increasing launch access — dawns upon us. The surge of innovation that comes with this will create new opportunities and inspire the next generation of doers. When this happens, boundaries between scientific and social impact are blurred. Innovation leading to scientific discovery can benefit society in the same way that social innovation can diversify and support scientific innovators, who can contribute to global progress. To ride this wave of progress, we must all participate and innovate in the new era of space exploration.
The intersection of space exploration, innovation and impact isn’t a new phenomenon. In the past, technology developments and spin-offs from space research have consistently found their way into communities worldwide sometimes with lifesaving benefits. The International Space Station supports experiments that have led to discoveries and inventions in communication, water purification, and remote guidance for health procedures and robotic surgeries. Satellite-enabled Earth observation capabilities that monitor natural disasters, climate and crops often support early warnings for threats and mitigation strategies. Space exploration has always been relevant to everyone no matter the discipline or interest.
Commercialization of space has been key in many ways to the current boost in “firsts” over the last few years. It has spurred innovation in launch vehicles and related technologies that led to firsts in vertical-takeoff-vertical landing rocket technology, reusability of rocket boosters and privately developed crewed missions to orbit. Concurrently, NASA has continued to captivate our imagination with the first flight of a helicopter in another world, a mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth and sending a probe to make the closest ever approach to the sun. While we celebrate the scientific progress, there is a vastly important question that we all need to focus on: How can we drive the surge in innovation offered by increased access to space, to benefit humankind?
Access to low-Earth orbit, and eventually human exploration of space, is a portal to achieve many impactful outcomes. The numbers and completion rate of microgravity experiments conducted by scientists will be greatly increased as a range of offerings in suborbital flights provide more opportunities to advance critical research in health, agriculture, energy, and more. Lunar, planetary, and even asteroid exploration may lead to discoveries of new materials — busting the limitations now imposed on capabilities for energy, transportation, and infrastructure or creating new sensors and devices that enhance safety on Earth. Space tourism —one can hope — has the power to potentially create an awareness of our oneness that may lead to social change.
But much like all scientific endeavors, we cannot ignore the importance of pre-emptively identifying and mitigating negative impacts of new ventures some of which may have already taken shape. We need to consider space debris that threatens the very access that facilitates it, safety and rescue readiness to support increased crewed missions and space tourism, national security, and effects of light pollution on astronomy. Much of these can be approached and mitigated with new concepts and ideas that have already been set in motion.
One thing is for certain, space has always been the inspiration for the next generation of innovators and creative thinkers. Architects of new ideas in this era will inspire many more. Ingenuity must also come from academic and research institutions building a new space-ready generation through innovative curriculum, scholarships, and research opportunities for key fields at all levels. Most of all, engaging participation is a responsibility anyone can take by steering the conversation and gathering ideas on how we can make this era one of positive benefit for all, while making opportunities inclusive to all.