Space research and space exploration are vital to the future of humankind. The Earth may be resilient — it's still here long after the dinosaurs, and it shows no scars from the Carrington solar storm that fried telegraph lines in 1859. But society on this planet is facing some unprecedented challenges.
Our dependence on technological systems such as power grids and satellite communication makes us more vulnerable than ever to solar storms. We should not forget that another significant asteroid collision is a matter of when, not if. And planetwide shifts such as climate change, ocean acidification and deforestation raise vital questions about how the Earth can continue to support the growing population.
These are just a few reasons why this is a pivotal time to take major steps in space-based technologies that can help us predict, adapt to, mitigate and protect ourselves from catastrophes or slower-occurring changes. They’re also good reasons to boost space exploration. To ensure that our species endures, we have a responsibility to develop our society to become a spacefaring one.
Technologically, we're making exciting progress. For example, through the Artemis program, NASA is partnering with private industry and universities to take people back to the moon by 2024 and to Mars by the 2030s. China’s uncrewed Chang'e program just landed a rover on the far side of the moon, where the Chinese space agency is laying the groundwork for a lunar research station. University, industry and government programs around the world are conducting promising research on ion thrusters for faster interplanetary travel and on small low-cost satellites to explore our solar system and beyond for signs of habitable worlds.
Many of us who work in these areas will be gathering next week for the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. It’s the world’s largest Earth and space science conference, and this happens to be its centennial year. As we consider the next hundred years, we must embrace the notion that technology alone won’t carry us forward.
We need to design this spacefaring future in context, and universities can play an important leadership role. That’s why, on our campus, we’ve recently launched the University of Michigan Space Institute. Its purpose is to bring together a strong multidisciplinary community and facilitate entirely new types of collaborations that might not have emerged organically solely within science and engineering communities. Here are some key areas where we believe this approach can pay dividends.
Zoning on the moon. Who owns the moon? How do we determine where we can build a station or mine for water or minerals? While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits nations from claiming celestial bodies, it didn't anticipate the privatization of space exploration. Technological advancement and economic shifts have opened many new questions about how nations and companies should operate on outposts beyond the Earth. Researchers in engineering, policy and law will need to work together to develop processes for establishing sustainable settlements.
Tracking and reducing space junk. Artificial satellite explosions and collisions have left behind more than 23,000 pieces of orbital debris that are larger than 10 centimeters, as well as more than 100 million that are smaller in size. Traveling at more than 15,000 miles per hour, the debris poses threats to the International Space Station and to the future crewed and uncrewed spacecraft crossing their orbits as space travel becomes increasingly commonplace. Today, the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee works to limit the accumulation, and other entities are aiming to improve tracking, but it will take both engineers and space policy makers to solve the problem.
Astronaut health. While we have some knowledge of how long-term weightlessness and living in a space environment affects the human body and mind, there’s still so much we don’t know about how to stay safe and healthy beyond Earth. To ward off physical and mental health problems, present-day astronauts spend two hours of every eight-hour workday exercising. Kinesiologists, biomedical engineers and other health and space environment experts are needed to develop better and more effective exercise hardware and regimens.
Beyond our brains, muscles and bones are our microbiomes. Trillions of micro-organisms help us digest food and fight disease. Microbiologists, gastroenterologists and environmental engineers will need to determine how the human microbiome will react to environments beyond Earth, and how we can ensure that it thrives.
The list goes on in this area. We need better understandings of radiation exposure, immune function, nutrition and medication stability. Only multidisciplinary teams can tackle such challenges.
Building the space workforce. As we move forward in space research and exploration — whether we’re focused on understanding, protecting and improving life on Earth, or expanding human civilization beyond its cradle — we must inspire and prepare tomorrow’s workforce to collaborate across traditional boundaries. We’re already witnessing the space industry outgrowing dependence on government funds and creating new kinds of jobs. We have a responsibility to introduce students in majors not typically associated with space to the opportunities in the new space economy. And the space industry will benefit from the types of creativity that are new to the sector.
In one step toward building a more diverse future space workforce, several universities, including the University of Michigan, are working with NASA to explore ways to increase the number of women who are principal investigators of large missions. We know that more diverse teams, and more diverse leadership, lead to more innovative ideas.
These and other emerging areas are already demanding collaborations not only between engineers and planetary scientists, who have driven much of space exploration to date, but also among scholars from a wide variety of other disciplines. As we become more ambitious, moving toward self-sustaining colonies and human exploration beyond our home planet, the need for a space research community that represents all areas of human knowledge will only grow.
Tuija Pulkkinen is chair of the University of Michigan Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering. Anthony Waas is the Richard A. Auhll Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering and the Felix Pawlowski Collegiate Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan.