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Innovation in Space

by Langdon on August 18, 2012

One of the fields in which innovation is paramount, and constant, is the development of humanity’s capabilities to explore, live, and work in space.  Success in the emerging space economy is now understood to be central to every nation’s terrestrial economic success, and our understanding of what is required to succeed in our space-based scientific and commercial ventures is constantly improving.

Langdon Morris serves as editor of the book series issued by the Aerospace Technology Working Group, a small think tank consisting largely of current and former NASA employees.  Our latest book is International Cooperation for the Development of Space,* in which we explore the ways that various countries have partnered, and will partner, to develop their capabilities in space.  The following is excerpted from the book, which will be available on in September.


The last few years has seen a mixture of good and bad news affecting the space community.  The conclusion of the US Space Shuttle program was accompanied by cutbacks and layoffs at NASA, and contributes to a general sense that the American space program has lost its way.

Despite this setback, though, there is plenty of good news.  To get a sense of how human capabilities are evolving, we have complied a selection of thirteen recent stories.  We understand that this is by no means a complete set of every story that the space community may be interested in, and we also recognize that when you read this section, the stories here will no longer be “news.”  But we include them nevertheless because we found it interesting and revealing to see all of these stories together in one place, as it gives a sense of some overall trends in the progress and globalization of the space endeavor, which naturally also contributes to the theme of this book, international cooperation

1.  April 2011:  GPS in health care, helps treat asthma
“Spiroscout is an inhaler with a built-in Global Positioning System locator and (in advanced models) a wireless link to the internet. Whenever someone uses the inhaler, it broadcasts the location and time to a central computer. Asthmapolis plots and analyses the data, and sends weekly reports to participating patients and their doctors summarising the observations and making recommendations.  That is useful for the individuals involved, since it may illuminate patterns of which they were unaware (the proximity of a particular kind of crop, for example).  It could also help doctors identify those patients whose asthma is not under proper control.  Use of the inhaler more than a couple of times a month suggests there is something wrong, and that the patient’s medication may need to be changed. Patients do not, however, always report such problems, and so do not get the right drugs. The big public gain, though, will come from pooling all the data from the inhalers, once they have been suitably anonymised. That will open the way for a much more detailed analysis of what is going on, and may allow the triggers to be identified and ranked in order of importance.”

(The Economist Magazine.  “Inhaling information:  How to collect data on asthma while, at the same time, treating it.”  April 7, 2011.)

2.  January 2012:  Satellite data in video gaming
Data from the Aster Global Digital Elevation Map, a joint satellite project of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and NASA, has been used to provide a three-dimensional model of K2, the world’s second tallest mountain on the border of Pakistan and China, for video game maker EA as the basis of the latest version of its SSX snow boarding video game.  But not just K2.  Mountain ranges around the world are rendered inside the video game.  “Riders will now be able to helicopter-drop onto the icy heights of Kilimanjaro, grind on the Great Wall of China, descend Everest, deploy a wing suit, and race in real time against 100,000 other players around the world – all set against a backdrop that’s as realistic as anything on Google Earth.”

(Goldstein, Melissa. “Shred Everest.” Wired Magazine.  January 2012. P. 60.)

3.  February 2012:  Scientists in the US State Department
“In the late 1990s, science and engineering leaders were deeply concerned that the US State Department lacked the scientific expertise that would be needed for the 21st century.  Now, after a sustained effort, State has built significant scientific strength and a promising capacity for science diplomacy. … Starting in 2000 with the appointment of veteran scientist-diplomat Norman P. Neuriter, four senior scientists have been appointed to 3-year terms as science advisor to the Secretary of State.  Fellowship programs now bring dozens of scientists every year to the State Department and the US Agency for International Development.”

(“Experts See Progress, Challenges in Advancing Science Diplomacy.”  Science Magazine, Vol. 335.  February 24, 2012.  p 935.)

4.  February 2012:  Swiss spacecraft to clean up space debris
Space researchers in Switzerland are seeking funding to build a spacecraft, dubbed ClearSpaceOne, that would help reduce space debris in orbit around Earth.  Researchers at the Swiss Space Center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have been working on the necessary technology for 3 years.”  The satellite would grab an unneeded satellite and drag it down into the atmosphere to burn up upon reentry.  The first target is expected to be a Swiss picosatellite.  Center Director Volker Gass commented, “Switzerland is a country that likes to keep things clean, so we decided to first get our own satellite down.”

(Science Magazine, February 24, 2012, Vol 335, p 896.)

5.  May 2012:  Space suit for Mars developed in Austria
The Austrian Space Forum has developed the Aouda.X Mars Space Suit Simulator to enable scientists to study the dynamics of suit design for an eventual voyage to the red planet.  On April 28, 2012 an international team of researchers tested the suit in a mountain cave in Dachstein, Austria.

(Science Magazine.  “That Age-Old Question:  What to Wear on Mars.”  May 11, 2012, Vol 336, p 656.)

6.  May 2012:  SpaceX Dragon docks at ISS
“High above northwestern Australia, a robotic arm on the International Space Station grabbed onto a cargo capsule floating 10 meters away. With that penultimate act, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif., or SpaceX, made history as the first private company to send a craft, the Dragon, to the station.  The grab — which NASA refers to as a grapple — occurred at 9:56 a.m. Eastern time on Friday.  ‘It looks like we’ve got us a Dragon by the tail,’ said Donald R. Pettit, the NASA astronaut on the station who was operating the robotic arm…. SpaceX launched the Dragon capsule on top of its Falcon 9 rocket.”

(Chang, Kenneth.  “First Private Craft Docks With Space Station.”  New York Times, May 25, 2012.)

7.  June 2012:  Chinese taikonauts dock 2 spacecraft in orbit; first Chinese woman in space
“Chinese astronauts carried out a manned docking with an experimental space module on Monday, the latest milestone in China’s ambitious campaign to build a space station.  The Shenzhou 9 and its three-person crew, which includes China’s first woman in space Liu Yang, linked with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module, with state television showing the pictures live.  Almost three hours later, the blue jumpsuit-wearing mission commander, Jing Haipeng, entered the module followed by colleague Liu Wang and Liu Yang, the first time China has been able to transfer astronauts between two orbiting craft.  Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.”

(Martina, Michael and Ben Blanchard,  “China astronauts complete successful space docking.”  Reuters, June 18, 2012.)

8.  June 2012:  Voyager passes heliosphere boundary at 18 billion kilometers from Earth
The Voyager spacecraft, now in its 35th year of flight, is estimated to be about 18 billion kilometers from Earth.  “An increase in cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft could mean that it’s leaving the heliosphere and entering interstellar space.”

(Science Magazine.  “18 billion kilometers.” June 29, 2012.  Vol 336, p 1626.)

9.  July 2012:  Virgin Galactic set to fly Branson’s family
“The first space flight of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture will be a family affair:  The billionaire adventurer confirmed that he will be joined by his two adult children.”  Virgin says it has booked 529 paying passengers, which happens to be one more than the total number of people who have traveled to space since Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight.  The cost of the two hour trip on Virgin Galactic is $200,000, and includes a one week training program prior to the flight at Virgin’s New Mexico Spaceport location.

(Associated Press.  “Bransons will ride on company’s debut flight.”  San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2012.  P D6.)

10.  July 2012:  Exoplanet science teaches about Earth’s physics
“Discovered in 2005 and orbiting a star 63 light-years from us, exoplanet HD 189733b doesn’t generally get much attention from climate scientists on Earth.  However, thermal observations of the gas giant have suggested that the planet’s hot spot has shifted about 30 degrees aware from the ‘high noon’ position, suggesting strong winds.”  A study of HD 189733b led planetary scientists Adam Showman and Lorenzo Polvani … “to the discovery that the models currently used to study terrestrial climate had left out some key physics concerning the transfer of momentum.  ‘We’re learning about Earth by studying exoplanets and about exoplanets by studying Earth’ commented Yohai Kaspi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.’”

(Klintisch, Eli.  “Earth and Planetary Scientists Search for Common Ground.”  Science Magazine, Vol 337. July 13, 2012. P 145.)

11.  August 2012:  India announces mission to Mars for 2013
“Top Indian space department officials revealed on Thursday that India would launch a Mars Mission in 2013. The country intends to undertake an orbital probe mission around Mars in attempts to grasp deeper understanding of its geology and climate.  The 2013 mission will be a milestone in India’s greater plans to launch its first ever manned mission in 2016. This is a representation of the increased aggression in India’s space programs.  According to reports, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket will be used to transport the orbiter spaceship. This 320 ton rocket will blast from the state run Indian Space Research Organization launch site in Sriharikota, Andhra Prandesh.”

(Yieke, Lennox.  “India To Step On Mars Next Year As Space Program Expands.” ValueWalk.  August 2, 2012.)

12.  August 2012:  Curiosity lands on Mars
“In a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered at the end of 25-foot-long cables from a hovering rocket stage onto Mars early on Monday morning.  The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.”

(Chang, Kenneth.  “Curiosity Rover Lands Safely on Mars.”  The New York Times, August 6, 2012.)

13.  August 2012:  Asteroid mining venture
“Planetary Resources Inc., an asteroid-mining venture backed by Google Inc. executives, said it added more billionaire investors and is nearing a partnership agreement with a ‘top-10’ mining company.  The company wants to be the first to harness potentially trillions of dollars of minerals including platinum group metals by using robotic technology to mine asteroids.”

(Riseborough, Jesse and Thomas Bieseuvel.  “Asteroid-mining company             attracts new billionaires.”  San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 2012, p D4.   This theme is explored in detail in a previous book in this series, in Taylor, Thomas and Haym Benaroya, “Developing a Space Colony from a Commercial Comet Mining Company Town.”  in Living in Space:  Cultural and Social Dynamics, Opportunities, and Challenges in Permanent Space Habitats, Bell and Morris, editors.  Aerospace Technology Working Group, 2009.)


Taken together, these pieces of news compose a compelling story showing steady improvement in our understanding and capabilities.  Space tourism, private rocketry, asteroid-based business ventures, space clean-up, clothes for Mars, a Chinese docking in space, Voyager’s continuing journey, etc., etc.,  all of this and more is part of our current endeavor and heritage.  And we note that efforts continue in many countries, among those noted here are Austria, China, India, Japan, Switzerland, and the US.

For those who are interested in innovation, paying attention to what’s happening in space presents a fascinating body of new knowledge.


*  The new book, International Cooperation for the Development of Space, Morris & Cox, Editors, will be available in
September 2012.

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