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Ancient eyes looked to the heavens, wondered how the stars and planets governed life on Earth, and yearned to touch them or to be touched by them. In the modern era, due to a better scientific understanding of the cosmos, our imagination has become bolder; now we dream of traveling to the planets and the stars. The early visionaries of human spaceflight, such as author Jules Verne and filmmaker Georges Méliès, worked in the realm of science fiction. However, a technological path forward was found by the rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a contemporary of Verne and Méliès, and by the likes of Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard. In 1957, the Sputnik 1 space probe was placed in Earth orbit, and in 1961, Yuri Gagarin traveled into space, orbiting the Earth, thus, formally starting the Space Age.
Space is indeed the final frontier and it can be argued that exploring outer space is human destiny and one that perhaps is unavoidable, a path leading humanity toward new and unimaginable worlds.
The path to space has been bittersweet for humanity, a journey of remarkable successes and heartbreaking disappointments. Although space endeavors, in general, pose more risk than terrestrial activities, the success rate of space missions is much higher than in the early days. The improvements in space travel reliability are so significant that space enthusiasts can now realistically contemplate space travel, even when not a member of the professional astronaut corps (Fig. 1).
Space science and exploration have inspired generations of young people to study physical sciences and select careers in technology-related fields. Space exploration has also inspired artists, musicians, and writers, whose space-related impressions are informed by the space program's beauty and grace (Fig. 2).
Although it is human space flight that commands public attention, over the last 60 years we have learned that robotic exploration and utilization of space can be achieved more cost effectively, yielding important economic, scientific, and national defense results. The infant industry of the mid-20th century is now a multibillion dollar enterprise. Today, space-based applications play critical roles in our lives: for example, space industry capabilities enable highly reliable navigation and communication services; and Earth-observing satellites inform us of weather events, marine oil spillage, agricultural harvest conditions, and tsunami waves as well as maintain emergency communications and navigation in all settings.
Space-based navigation services have altered the public's travel habits. With the Global Positioning System (GPS), we no longer depend on paper maps for navigation in unknown territory. We can drive in foreign lands without fear of getting lost. GPS is also used to locate lost or stranded people.
Space-based remote-sensing tools have helped humanity better understand and more effectively address global man-made ecological hazards. Likewise, global and local natural events can be better understood via observations made by space platforms—a good example of which is the annual hurricane events in the southeastern United States. Hurricane tracking and more effective predicting of hurricane paths undertaken through space platforms save lives. In another example, humans rely on satellites for communications and broadcast services, both fixed and mobile applications. In part thanks to satellites, many people have access to affordable long-distance communications. Communications satellites also play an important role in bringing Internet services to remote areas.
A critical, humanitarian application of space technology has been in space-based social services in the developing world. This topic has been addressed by Bhaskanarayana and Jain in , where they discuss the impact of space technology on the rural poor in India that include 70% of the Indian society. The authors point out the uniqueness of space-based services in reaching over 600 000 villages scattered over a large land mass: “Space technology—due to its inherent advantage of having access to remote, rural and inaccessible areas—coupled with ICTs [information and communication technologies] can be an effective mean to address several problems by developing countries today in providing basic facilities like health, education, employment and so on to rural population.” They indicate that as of 2007, more than 300 000 patients were benefiting from space-based telemedicine and that there were about 34 000 students of space-based remote education in India alone.
Space-based navigation services, remote-sensing tools, and ICTs are only a few examples of space technology applications. In fact, we can find many space-initiated research and development applications even closer to home, in both developed and developing societies. David Baker, in a book written for young adults, offers many examples where space technology has spurred commercial products that have everyday uses for the general public . For instance, three such technology infusions improve how we sleep, how we walk, and how we learn about our health.
A very comfortable and popular bedding product is “memory foam,” which evenly distributes body weight for added comfort. This successful commercial product owes its existence to National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) quest to develop a material that could be used inside space shuttles to relieve astronauts of the G-force experience during liftoff. In another example, the shoe industry owes its highly cushioned, light, and very durable sneakers to NASA work on space suits and space helmets. Athletic shoes with air pressure midsoles utilize a variation of NASA space technology. While rigid and durable, these shoes are also flexible and bouncy to better protect knees and joint cartilage. Yet another example is image processing algorithms that were developed to process remote-sensing satellite images. These image enhancement techniques were successfully applied to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) scanners, commonly known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to sharpen medical imaginary of the human body, thus allowing physicians to view accurate profiles of body tissues in real time—a contribution that has made it possible for healthcare professionals to safely distinguish pathological tissue from normal tissue.
The public interest in and excitement about outer space shows no sign of diminishing. Clearly there are great discoveries to be made, great adventures to be experienced, and great benefits to be gained. It may be argued that exploring outer space is human destiny, one that we cannot avoid—traveling a path that is bound to bring humanity face to face with unimaginable worlds.
The invaluable contributions of Dr. Peter Kinman of the California State University, Fresno, to this section of the Centennial Issue are gratefully recognized. Dr. Kinman's outstanding inputs have enhanced the quality of this issue.
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