Around 7:50 a.m. CT on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet Pluto’s surface and began relaying stunning images from the outer limits of our solar system—all after traveling for 10 years and a distance of three billion miles. Three. Billion. Miles. That’s out there.
The New Horizons mission is the latest in a series of unmanned expeditions exploring the nine classic planets. It represents the final chapter so to speak, after 50 years of getting up close and personal with our planetary neighbors. It’s an odyssey worthy of reflection for more reasons than the astonishing imagery and data emerging from it. Why? Like all the human space exploration dating back to Sputnik in 1957, these journeys are, and always will be, propelled by science.
Since the first telescopes were invented, science has enabled us to get clearer answers to questions as old as the human race itself. Where do we come from, how did we get here, and where are we going? Once we humans had shed our earthly bonds of gravity, past the moon and beyond, science’s myriad advancements not only allowed us to expand our understanding of the universe and our place in it—but provided far-reaching breakthroughs that have benefitted nearly every aspect of life sciences right here on Earth.
How space science benefits life science
Imagine performing modern drug discovery without powerful refractometers or computers. From innovative cancer therapies to development of lightweight materials and miniaturization (e.g., biotechnologies and research at the microbial level), advancements developed to extend our reach into the cosmos have consistently found their way back to the lab.
Modern technologies that many of us now take for granted are a product of early space missions. We evolved alongside the machines that got us to the moon and back with on-board computers possessing a fraction of the memory capacity found in today’s smartphones.
Scientific discoveries found in the process of venturing into space frequently reveal benefits for society on Earth and will continue to do so as long as there is a space program. The promise of space exploration is inextricably linked to finding new means to solving global challenges ranging from climate change, healthcare and medicine to providing energy, food and transportation for the earth’s increasing population. Discoveries in space serve another important function: they attract young people to careers in science and technology, a priority for developed nations.
I remember as a ten-year old boy wanting to become an astronaut—going so far as writing the President of the United States offering my services as the first boy to walk on the moon. Sadly, I never got a reply from the White House. Nor did I wind up walking on the moon or inventing the machines that now explore distant planets. Happily, I can track fantastic journeys and developments of missions such as New Horizons from afar—and that’s almost as good!
Ultimately “Space” is an endlessly expansive, interesting and mysterious place driving a ton of scientific discoveries currently on the table or prospectively being dreamed about. It’s the indirect benefits of space exploration over time that enhance the quality of life on our planet—and the earthbound science and research that keeps us ever progressing as a people and as a global society.
So the next time you come across an amazing technology that you think is way out there, think of what got us here. Science.