As billionaires race to the stars, many have been quick to throw shade on the rich for spending money on joyrides to space instead of solving problems on Earth. But a Canadian astronaut is reminding people that space exploration has the power to contribute to life-changing advances on our planet.
“You can argue whether or not we need to go to Mars. I think that’s not the point. We will go to Mars because it’s there and we want to explore,” said Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
“But going to Mars is going to require figuring out recycling. We’re going to become masters at air, water and recycling, at food production. That’s going to help us on Earth.”
In an interview with CBC News, the astronaut and family physician said that while essentials such as health care, education, employment and security should always take priority, he believes a fraction of our resources must also be devoted to dreaming big — through the arts, exploration and science.
“That is how we progress,” he said.
“If we just do what’s needed, we don’t progress. We don’t change. The only way we move forward is by doing a little bit of crazy, blue-sky dreaming.”
In his own career, Saint-Jacques’s dreams have often focused on trying to bring medicine to remote communities. Before joining the Canadian Space Program in 2009, he was a family doctor in the fly-in Inuit community of Puvirnituq, Nunavik, in northern Quebec.
A recent article published in Nature Medicine, co-authored by Saint-Jacques, highlights the ways that space-based technologies are advancing telemedicine and could be used to help prevent and monitor future pandemics.
One of the key examples noted in the paper is the Bio-Monitor, wearable technology that Saint-Jacques tried out during his 204-day mission aboard the International Space Station from 2018 to 2019.
During his mission, the smart shirt continuously monitored Saint-Jacques’s heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, physical activity and blood oxygen levels.
While it’s still being developed for clinical settings, the idea is that instead of hooking up a patient to a tangle of tubes and cables, the Bio-Monitor could one day monitor a patient non-intrusively and remotely, around the clock.
“I can envisage a future where a lot of people are wearing that on Earth,” Saint-Jacques said.
He said that kind of technology could make a big difference in places like an isolated village on the shore of the Hudson Bay.
“Imagine an elderly person living in a little village with, for example, a chronic lung disease,” he said.
“If there was that simple and unobtrusive way to just gently monitor their general health status, the nurse in the village could get an alarm [if] there’s something … before it’s too late.”
Using satellite images to monitor pandemics
Saint-Jacques has been working on the frontlines of the pandemic, helping out in the COVID-19 ward of Montreal’s McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
He said he could also see the bio-monitor one day being used for patients in intensive care.
Dr. Farhan Asrar, a family doctor who led the study published in Nature Medicine, said that’s just one example of how space exploration contributes to innovation on Earth.
“If you went from point A to point B using GPS, that was thanks to space technology,” said Asrar, who is also faculty at the University of Toronto and at the International Space University.
He wants to raise more awareness about how space-based technologies benefit our daily lives.
For instance, he said, satellite images can help mitigate and prevent future pandemics by mapping out vaccine deployment strategies, as well as monitoring weather conditions and migration patterns that contribute to the spread of certain infectious diseases.
Another example is the digital revolution, which was accelerated in the 20th century by the need for a light, compact computer for the Apollo mission.
In the early 2000s, a project aimed at measuring radiation exposure during spacewalks helped improve technology used in cancer clinics worldwide to protect staff who administer radiation treatments. Another ongoing research project aims to lead to a better understanding of osteoporosis and other bone degenerative diseases on Earth.
The power of witnessing the vacuum of space
Like Saint-Jacques, Asrar said the private-space industry has its advantages. He pointed to the breakthrough of re-usable launchers and rockets, a private-sector innovation that would have been too expensive for governments to fund.
The commercialization of space exploration, for better or for worse, is here.
Saint-Jacques said he’s glad that people with money and power are seeing the same view of the planet he witnessed from space.
“When you see the Earth from space, two things are amazing: First, how beautiful she is — the thin blue line of the atmosphere that’s merely a little fog clinging onto the planet, keeping us alive.”
But what he said is most impressive, is when you see that Earth is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, surrounded by deadly radiation and meteorites.
“This is the true human condition, how exposed we are in the cosmos. Our home is really our only raft, our only oasis.”
Saint-Jacques said he’s glad that powerful people with the capacity to influence change are witnessing that with their own eyes.