As billionaires race to the stars, many have been quick to cast shadows on the wealthy for spending money on pastimes into space rather than solving problems on Earth. But a Canadian astronaut reminds people that space exploration has the potential to contribute to life-changing progress on our planet.
“You can argue whether we need to go to Mars or not,” said Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. “I think that’s not the point. We’re going to Mars because it’s there and we want to explore.”
“But going to Mars will require discovering recycling. We will become masters in air, water, recycling and food production. This will help us on Earth.”
In an interview with CBC News, the astronaut and family doctor said that while necessities like health care, education, employment and security should always take priority, he believes a small portion of our resources should also be devoted to big dreams — through the arts, exploration and science.
“This is how we proceed,” he said.
“If we only do what’s needed, we don’t progress. We don’t change. The only way we move forward is by doing some crazy dreams and blue skies.”
In his career, Saint-Jacques’ dreams have often focused on trying to bring medicine to remote communities. Prior to joining the Canadian Space Program in 2009, he was a family physician in the Fly-In Inuit community in Bouvernetoc, Nunavík, in northern Quebec.
A recent article in Nature Medicine, co-authored by Saint-Jacques, highlights the ways in which space technologies are advancing telemedicine and can be used to help prevent and monitor future epidemics.
One of the main examples cited in the paper is Bio-Monitor, the wearable technology Saint-Jacques tested during his 204-day mission aboard the International Space Station from 2018 to 2019.
During its mission, the smart shirt constantly monitored heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, physical activity and blood oxygen levels.
While it is still in development for clinical settings, the idea is that instead of tying a patient to a tangle of tubes and cables, a bio-monitor could one day monitor the patient non-intrusively and remotely, around the clock.
“I can envision a future in which a lot of people will wear that to the floor,” Saint-Jacques said.
He said that this kind of technology could make a huge difference in places like a secluded village on the shore of Hudson Bay.
“Imagine an old man living in a small village who suffers, for example, from a chronic lung disease,” he said.
“If there was a simple and unobtrusive way to gently monitor their general health, the nurse in the village might get an alarm [if] There is something… before it’s too late.”
Using satellite imagery to monitor epidemics
Saint-Jacques is working on the front lines of the pandemic, helping with the COVID-19 ward at the McGill University Health Center in Montreal (MUHC).
He said he could also one day see a bio-monitor used for patients in intensive care.
This is just one example of how space exploration is contributing to innovation on Earth, said Dr. Farhan Asrar, the family physician who led the study published in Nature Medicine.
“If you go from point A to point B using GPS, it’s thanks to space technology,” said Asrar, who is also a faculty member at the University of Toronto and the International Space University.
He wants to raise awareness of how space technologies can benefit our daily lives.
For example, he said, satellite imagery can help mitigate and prevent future epidemics by charting vaccine deployment strategies, as well as monitoring weather conditions and migration patterns that contribute to the spread of some infectious diseases.
Another example is the digital revolution, which was accelerated in the 20th century by the need for a light and compact computer for the Apollo mission.
In the early 2000s, a project to measure radiation exposure during spacewalks helped improve technology used in cancer clinics around the world to protect staff administering radiation therapy. Another ongoing research project aims to better understand osteoporosis and other osteoporotic diseases on Earth.
The power of observing the void in space
Like Saint-Jacques, Asrar said the private space industry has its advantages. He noted the breakthrough of reusable launchers and missiles, an innovation for the private sector that would have been very costly for governments to fund.
The commercial exploitation of space exploration, thick and thin, is here.
Saint-Jacques said he was glad that people with money and power saw the same view of the planet as he had seen from space.
“When you see Earth from space, there are two amazing things: First, how beautiful it is – the thin blue line of the atmosphere that is just a little mist clinging to the planet, keeping us alive.”
But what he said is most impressive, is when you see that the Earth lies in the middle of nowhere at all, surrounded by deadly radiation and meteors.
“This is the true human condition, how exposed we are to the universe. Our home is really our only raft, our only oasis.”
Saint-Jacques said he is happy that the powerful people who have the power to influence change are seeing it with their own eyes.