Actor William Shatner, famously known as Captain Kirk of the original 1960s television series, is the latest in a line of celebrities slated to fly into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket. While these flights are great publicity for the emerging space tourism industry, it could overshadow the real science taking place in space.
At 90 years old, the Canadian-born Shatner will become the oldest person to ever reach space. He'll break the record set in July by 82-year-old Wally Funk, the pioneering female aviator who flew on board the first passenger flight of the Blue Origin rocket. She in turn had broken the record set by John Glenn, who spent nine days aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 at age 77. Glenn was a former astronaut, fighter pilot who had experienced the rigours of spaceflight and knew what to expect.
Mr. Shatner may find the ride to space a little less comfortable than the bridge of the starship Enterprise. He'll face the physical challenges of launch and re-entry as he is carried aloft on a straight up, straight down hop above the atmosphere. It may not be the crowning achievement of his long acting career, but it will be a major accomplishment for a very senior citizen.
Space tourism is definitely taking off. Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old billionaire behind Blue Origin and founder of Amazon, also flew on his rocket's first passenger flight in July. That was just over a week after fellow billionaire and space tourism entrepreneur, Richard Branson, flew aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane at the age of 71.
In September four space tourists spent three days in orbit aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. And a Russian actor and film director are now aboard the International Space Station to shoot a movie about a medical emergency in space. Even Tom Cruise is talking about filming action scenes on the space station.
All this may sell tickets for space tourism and blockbuster movies, but will it detract from the real science that has been going on for more than 20 years on the space station by dedicated astronauts who spend years training for each flight?
The International Space Station is first and foremost a scientific laboratory operated by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European nations. Oh, and it happens to be in space.
The walls, ceilings and floors are packed with scientific experiments holding everything from growth chambers that study how plants survive in microgravity, to a flame box that watches fire progress without gravity, to an aquarium and rodent box where we can see how animals adapt to a weightless world.
Over more than 20 years of operations, thousands of experiments have been done in the space laboratory, many of them using the astronauts and cosmonauts themselves as subjects.
For example, Scott Kelly spent almost a year up there and was part of a study that compared him to his identical twin who remained on Earth in an effort to understand the effects of prolonged spaceflight on the human body. This will be an important issue for future spacefarers who will make the long journey to Mars and back.
While NASA and the other space agencies have done a good job justifying the need for these experiments, what they don't seem to be as good at is advertising the results. We seldom hear about new drugs, new breakthroughs or new products that were developed thanks to research done on the space station, though NASA's website points to a raft of findings, from drugs for cancer, and muscular dystrophy, to new understandings of bone loss, to environmental science to improved water purification systems.
It is interesting that much of the public knows more about the adventures of a fictional space traveller on a fictional starship than they do about the actual people who are up there in a real space station.
It would be in the best interest of the space agencies to do a better job of publicizing the results of their space station research. It would go a long way towards justifying the upwards of $100 billion invested in the ISS. Otherwise it could end up looking like the world's most expensive movie set. Space science may not be as exciting as an action movie or seeing your favourite celebrity floating weightless, but it can still be enormously valuable.
In the meantime, good luck Mr. Shatner, as you boldly go where no nonagenarian has gone before.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
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