Space Exploration is Not Just for Astronauts

| September 28, 2011 | 0 Comments
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Teddy bears in space, via Mirror UK

With the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program this summer, there’s been a lot of talk about the future of manned space exploration. As the name “shuttle” would suggest, the Space Shuttle program was supposed to mark the beginning of space missions that were more regular and less expensive, an opportunity for both scientific and commercial space travel. But now that the program has ended, we’ve lost what has been, arguably, one of the more glamorous occupations that could entice students into thinking about a future career in space exploration: the job of space shuttle astronaut.

But as Spacehack‘s Ariel Waldman is quick to point out, we might be placing too much emphasis on the “astronaut” when we think about the possibilities of exploring space. After all, after 50 some-odd years of space missions, humans have only sent 500 people into space. When we think about the impact of the Internet, a technology that’s just about as old as the space mission, we can see that the latter has had a far greater and far more democratizing impact.

We’re about to see a renaissance of citizen science, where people are able to participate more and take an active role in dictating the direction of scientific exploration.

How then can we take the lessons and the opportunities of the Internet — all its democratizing potential — and use that to re-think space exploration? Are there ways in which we can continue to explore space even though the opportunities to send humans there seem, for the near future at least, to have diminished?

Yes, there are, says Waldman, whose Spacehack website helps highlight a variety of space projects in which anyone can readily participate.

The projects on Spacehack range from the well-known SETIQuest search for intelligent life in the universe to the TubeSat Personal Satellite kit, which as the name suggests is a way to build your own satellite.

With Spacehack, Waldman has compiled projects in which people can actively contribute to scientific discoveries. Some space exploration projects, like those long associated with SETI, have often involved people turning over their computing resources for scientists to use or involved people doing rather mindless, repetitive tasks that aid others in their discoveries. But Waldman is committed to promoting projects in which people get to actively participate and contribute — and just as importantly, projects for which they get credit for their discoveries.

An example of this is GalaxyZoo, a site that takes data from millions of galaxies that have been imaged by space telescopes and has human volunteers assess and classify the imagery. GalaxyZoo shows you images and you’re asked to identify the patterns of the stars. It’s a way to crowdsource the identification of galaxies, and the citizen scientists who’ve participated have done just that, making several important discoveries including identifying (and naming) the “Green Peas” galaxies.

Participating in projects like Galaxy Zoo doesn’t require an engineering or astronomy background. And as Waldman notes, it’s a good reminder that there are lots of jobs associated with space exploration that don’t either. After all, not everyone who works at NASA is an astronaut or astrophysicist.

Part of the work of Spacehack is also helping space exploration programs make their offerings more accessible and available to the public — removing some of the barriers and jargon that make participation intimidating, if not impossible. This is important for getting kids engaged in STEM careers, but it’s also just as important for keeping adults engaged in scientific work — even if they don’t themselves opt for STEM careers. As a recent BoingBoing article by Maggie Koerth-Baker contends, we’re failing to reach adults with science museums and science education just as much as we’re failing to reach children.

Nonetheless, Waldman believes we’re about to see a renaissance of citizen science, where people are able to participate more and, as such, take an active role in dictating the direction of scientific exploration. Pointing to the success of sites like Galaxy Zoo, Waldman argues that citizen scientists will be empowered to speak up and help actively engage in these sorts of efforts, without feeling intimidated or left out of these important discussions.

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, keep an eye out for Science Hack Day, a weekend-long event that brings together scientists, engineers, designers, developers, geeks and enthusiasts to — as the name suggests — work on hands-on, DIY science projects. The next Science Hack Day in San Francisco will be November 12 and 13. Adults and kids, scientists and citizen scientists are welcome to attend.

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