|| Nibbles in Space: 000616

Why is going to space good for society?

October 2020 || 000616

4 - 5 minute read

Title image is NASA astronaut Ron Garan, Expedition 28 flight engineer on 11 September 2011, pictured in a window of the Cupola of the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA


Space is an integral part of our modern society. The first weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched in 1960, demonstrating how space-based observations could assist weather forecasters. Today, on a routine basis from both near-polar low-Earth orbits of about 800km altitude and from geostationary orbits, a fleet of satellites monitor the Earth’s weather and are responsible for the vast majority of the accuracy of weather forecasts.

A large range of measurement types are used in weather forecasting, from multi-spectral imagery in the visible and infrared, to microwave and infrared hyper-spectral sounding measurements, which provide three-dimensional information on the atmosphere, including things like water vapour.

Scatterometers, and radar altimeters are also used, and we even use reflected and occulted GPS signals to understand water vapour content in the atmosphere and wind speeds. And, scientific spacecraft like the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite can even provide direct three-dimensional measurements of the wind.

Drag the divider to see the comparison.
Visible image at 0.635µm wavelength
Enhanced visualisation radar image from Sentinel-1.
Infrared image at 3.9µm wavelength
True colour image from Sentinel-2.
Above images of Western Europe at 1830hrs (UTC) on 21 May 2020 in the visble and infrared. Note the darkess over eastern regions in the visible image as the Sun has already set, but infrared reveals cloud structure even in apparent darkness. Credit: EUMETSAT.

Throughout its development, space has been used by governments of all persuasions to advance their interests in foreign affairs and geopolitics. When Ronald Reagan was elected US president in 1981, Cold War tensions were rising due to the actions of both sides.

At the end of 1981 the Reagan administration announced it would allow the US-Soviet space cooperation agreement, due for renewal in May 1982, to lapse. From here mutual suspicion grew around the intent of each side’s actions in space, and this dominated the relationship for the next decade.

Yet, throughout this, cooperation did continue. Among them were satellite-based search and rescue efforts using the US-Canadian-French SARSAT and the Soviet COSPAS satellites to locate airplanes or ships in distress. Today these efforts have grown into a satellite-aided search and rescue system that ensures immediate detection of an alert anywhere in the world, and aids the rescue of thousands of people each year.

But, this isn’t the only use of space that directly saves lives. The International Charter 'Space and Major Disasters' provides charitable and humanitarian acquisition of satellite data from over 60 spacecraft to aid relief efforts in major disasters.

Perhaps the clearest example of space as a tool of foreign affairs and geopolitics is human spaceflight. In the era of the Cold War this is what human spaceflight was for, to sway non-aligned nations and show just how superior we each were.

But, of course, it’s not all competitive and negative. In Reagan’s first term as president he was being urged to approve a US space station to rival the well-established Soviet programme. And he did. And, in stereotypical American fashion they called it Space Station Freedom. And Freedom was going to be bigger and better than the Soviet station.

However, Cold War tensions were also leading to fears and warnings of the dangers of weaponizing space, with both sides seeing cooperation in space as a means to limit, or halt weapons in space, and even a stepping stone to wider arms reduction.

Eventually, this led to a renewal of the US-Soviet space cooperation agreement in 1987, just over a year after the Soviets had launched the first module of what would become the Mir space station. This renewed cooperation eventually led to the merger of the rival space station programmes, and the launch in 1998 of one of the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted, the International Space Station. Taking over a decade to complete the main construction, it is divided into two sections: the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), operated by Russia; and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS), which is shared by the US, Europe, Japan, and Canada.

China has a separate and active human spaceflight programme, while India has begun a similar programme, and several other countries plan to follow. Of note, official English-language texts issued by the Chinese government use the term ‘astronaut’, as opposed to the Russian term ‘cosmonaut’. However, the term ‘taikonaut’, a hybridization of the Chinese term ‘taikong’ (space) and the Greek ‘naut’ (sailor), is often used by English-language news media organisations and likely has its origins in the term ‘tàikōng rén’, ‘spaceman’, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Meanwhile in Chinese the terms ‘yǔ hang yuán’(宇航员), and ‘háng tiān yuán’ (航天员), both meaning ‘astronaut’, have been used historically and recently some English language media organizations, such as the BBC, have begun to use the transliteration ‘yuhangyuan’ rather than the term ‘astronaut’ for those from China.

Human spaceflight is often held up as a beacon to inspire students into scientific and technical subjects, and maybe it does, but can we really say that robotic spaceflight, given similar budgets couldn’t achieve something similar?

There is no doubt that generating the required number of scientist and engineers to support our economy in the future is one of the great challenges of our age. And, there is also no doubt that space holds an unrivalled attraction as a recruitment tool.

But, space is so much more than just Human spaceflight, and it contributes so much more to education. To understand just how accessible space has become, in 2013 an American high school launched the first spacecraft designed, built, and operated by high school students. And, India has found the use of satellites for communicating with widely dispersed schools so beneficial that they have a long-term commitment to use satellites for the support of remote education. And so, it is hard to argue that space is anything other than good for society.

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