ASU brings space innovation down to Earth with Space for Humans

By Mark Brodie
Published: Monday, April 1, 2024 - 11:21am
Updated: Monday, April 1, 2024 - 12:18pm

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Researchers across the globe, including here in Arizona, are working on new technologies to help improve space exploration. But, how do those innovations impact those of us here on Earth?

A new project — and YouTube series — from Arizona State University explores all of that. It’s called Space for Humans, Eric Stribling, a faculty member with the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU, joined The Show to talk about the project. 

Man in black polo smiling next to microphone
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
Eric Stribling.

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: Where did the idea behind Space For Humans videos and the project come from?

ERIC STRIBLING: For the last 2 and a half years, I've been working on a research project that focuses on sustainability of the space industry. And it's, it's entitled Space Exploration and Sustainable Development. And it covers both you know, space activities as you know, government-funded activities, but also sort of this new age that we're in of private space companies taking over the field and what that means in terms of sustainability back here on Earth.

BRODIE: Yeah, it's interesting because you're not so much looking at the impact of any of the stuff on space or on the missions, but how things like satellites, for example, impact us here on Earth.

STRIBLING: Right, right. So the larger conversation right now, in terms of space sustainability does focus on the orbital environments. And I think what's unique about our research group is that we focus on what space technologies do for the rest of us, both in terms of global society, governance issues and also our shared environment.

BRODIE: Is it fair to say that there are pros and cons to that? That there are some things that space exploration has brought on that are good for us here on Earth and some things that are maybe less so.

STRIBLING: Yes. And I'll sort of throw in a third category, which is things that we that are sort that can go both ways depending on the design of our space technologies, which is actually the focus of our first video. We look at the impacts of past space designs, you know, on women astronauts primarily. But to go back to your first question, yes, the there are tremendous benefits for humanity of current space technologies. And one example is Earth observation and remote sensing satellites.

I think it was the TIROS-I satellite was launched in the 1960s. And for the first time, we were able to sort of look down on Earth and predict the weather. And actually that satellite, in its short life span, actually found a new typhoon in the Pacific Ocean that no one knew about. So that has, you know, in terms of disaster relief, that, that's been tremendous, a tremendous benefit. On the flip side, the current combustion chemistry involved in rocket launches is possibly detrimental and we actually don't currently understand fully the impacts it has on some of the upper levels of our atmosphere. And really space technologies are the only current technologies that cross that, that area.

BRODIE: How much of what you're doing is trying to get people to maybe think about space and space exploration in a, in a slightly different way?

STRIBLING: Yes. So I think on the one hand, our species is very likely going to become increasingly interplanetary as we move forward. And there's a lot of instances where if we make inclusive design decisions early, then it's better for us long term. One example is say, if we just, you know, design a door to be wide enough for a wheelchair as you are building the building, then it doesn't cost any more to add a larger door. However, once the building is built, once we have, for example, a space industry that is well established, then those design changes become harder and more costly.

BRODIE: So you're looking to, as you're sort of building the space industry, trying to be as inclusive as you can now, so that you're not having to go back and, and retrofit things later or think, OK, how are we going to change this to allow for this person or this mission to come up later. You want to sort of future-proof yourself against all that at the front.

STRIBLING: Right. And that's sort of one of the driving messages of our YouTube channel. And, and another one is simply to expand awareness on the benefits that the current space industry has on issues that you may not even realize.

BRODIE: We should point out that it's not all sort of serious stuff either though, right? Like there's, there's an episode about Barbie in space. There's an episode about Fortnite and how the, the joystick sort of evolved from, you know, from space exploration. So it, it seems like you're, you're trying to sort of hit on all levels here, the, the important serious societal stuff, but also some of the lighter stuff as well.

STRIBLING: Yeah, exactly. And one of the really neat things about this project is it is, it is grounded in our ongoing research, but we also work really hard to involve a lot of undergraduate students in the writing production and filming of, of all of our episodes. So for example, the, the joystick episode that you're referencing, the student who stars in it did the research. She hosts the video and she did and she participated on the editing side as well.

BRODIE: So what does success look like for this project?

STRIBLING: I would love to take some of our research that, you know, often exists in a not well read academic journal and actually bring some of those topics into sort of the public discourse because I, I do believe that the stakeholders that are going to be driving some of these changes that would make space more inclusive. They're, they're all over the place and I would love to get more people involved in the conversation.

BRODIE: Well, it seems like that would be really important, right. Because you're not just talking about sort of like theoretical issues or esoteric things, like these are things that really impact people's lives.

STRIBLING: Yes. There are and it's often in ways that you don't expect. You know, our current understanding of climate change would not be possible without Earth observation satellites because there's, you know, some of our most sensitive environmental regions are extremely remote, very hard to get to get to and then, you know, you can have certain areas of our earth that no one goes to for decades.

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