Space exploration is for everyone, including developing nations

9 min read

NightEVA Perseids OeWF PaulSantek
(Photo courtesy of the OeWF)

Most speculative fiction that I consume features a multi-national, multi-ethnic vision of space. From the beginning with Star Trek including a Russian character on the Enterprise, through to the diverse characters of Mass Effect’s Earth council or whatever that weird form of government was in The Expanse – the future is viewed as being equal for all races, all genders, all nations. But somehow, when I think about space travel, I tend to think it is prohibitively expensive, something that is only really done by the likes of NASA, some Russian organizations and Elon Musk (except for that viral image of the Indian women celebrating the success of their ISRO launch). Well, I’m wrong on all fronts.

When I interviewed Kartik Kumar, an Analog Astronaut with the Austrian Space Forum, we talked about the prospects of missions to Mars, but even more intriguing to me, we discussed the current state of science, space law and its impact on various people and nations. I asked him about which common space myths he would wish to debunk once and for all, expecting a response about people surviving or exploding when exposed to the vacuum of space, or something about zero gravity. But actually, his answers made me really pause about the deeper myths, the ones that were already so ingrained in me that I had never even thought to question them.

I think one of the biggest myths is that “space is expensive”. Although the costs involved often seem astronomical (pun intended), the fact of the matter is that we spend barely a fraction of a percentage of national GDP in the US and Europe on the space industry. In Europe for instance, the annual cost of the space program to taxpayers is approximately equivalent to the price of a burger and a drink. The space industry actually generates tremendous Return-On-Investment (ROI).

That ROI isn’t just for country prestige or space resources. The research done into growing plants in space, for example, has already helped to improve agriculture here on Earth, with countries using similar techniques to grow food in areas previously considered impossible. Obviously the larger the economic area, the more people spending their burger and drink equivalent contribution towards a space budget. But even smaller or less developed countries can get involved with space economies.

Apollo space program

Kumar goes so far as to say that space is our shared past, present and future and that it’s “extremely stifling” to say that developing countries shouldn’t waste their GDP on space research. Instead, in “these countries the space industry can be a means to bootstrap high-tech industries and lead to sustainable jobs.”

So let’s stop talking about space like it should only be the privy of the traditional players and instead find ways to democratize the industry! I’m trying my bit to help rewrite this narrative through my startup: (shameless plug!). Our goal is to build a global platform that breaks down barriers to the industry by providing transparent access to the core technologies, products and services. Hopefully, others will join us in this quest to provide open access to the space industry for everyone.

I really like the idea that space belongs to everyone, and can help any nation no matter their GDP or development profile. Of course the rules and laws about who is in charge in space are still unclear with space law still in its infancy. With the space race emerging during the Cold War, universal laws have obviously been difficult to codify. Issues ranging from national security to prestige can stand in the way of bringing people to the table. It’s just so intriguing to me that there is a place out there that’s like the Wild West, where we know that laws will be necessary especially when it comes to Mars and Moon colonization, asteroid mining and even high-resolution Earth observation, but for now there is very little in the way of governance.

But how do we get people excited about a space that’s for anyone? Hidden Figures is doing well at the box office and with award nominations, helping to break the stereotypes that science and space are for white men. But there is a lot more being done. Kumar pointed out a fantastic organization, Women In Aerospace, that is working to increase the leadership capabilities and visibility of women in the aerospace community. It’s worth pointing out that those women are already present (and seemingly have been for decades), but now are getting showcased and highlighted more.

Astronauts Inigo Carmen Puli rover OeWF ClaudiaStix

(Photo courtesy of the OeWF)

The focus, as usual, is on children though. Kids are always fascinated by space – if you talk to any child they will discuss an interest in exploring, in becoming an astronaut. As part of the Austrian Space Forum, Kumar has tried to serve as something of an ambassador for space across the globe:

I have given talks at various schools around the world to children who might not have direct opportunities to access space education. The more kids we are able to reach and the more diversity we can bring into the fold, the more likely we are to generate benefits for everyone. Diversity not only provides a strong foundation for further growth of the space industry, but it also enables us to benefit from a myriad of perspectives on how to move forward as a species.

But many kids and even adults are scared by STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), moving more towards soft skills over the years as science and mathematics become more complicated. It all sounds cool to imagine traveling to space, but when you actually have to use formulae from physics and maths to do it, many people decide it’s just too hard. But carrying on with those subjects can actually improve many aspects of our lives:

I think there’s bit of a misnomer about what maths and science are actually about. Both subjects really just offer a way to understand the world around you. This is something we’re all constantly busy trying to do, so in my mind, there’s nothing more natural than learning maths and science. The benefit of mastering these subjects goes beyond the specific equations and laws that you’re taught in school. The real benefit comes from the skill that you learn to systematically break down complex problems. The analytical mind that comes from STEM education gives you a huge leg-up to understand, dissect and overcome daily challenges.

I’ve had the chance over a number of years to build up my skills and make use of maths and science in pretty much every part of my life. Firstly, my research requires me to be able to synthesize solutions to pretty complex problems. For my PhD, I’m studying the dynamics of the outer ring system around Uranus. I’ve also worked on figuring out ways to tackle the problem of space debris. Outside of work, I can’t think of specific examples of using maths and science but I think it’s more important to highlight that the mindset that you learn gives you the tools to discriminate between what’s real and what isn’t. The latest fake news controversy is probably the best example of that. Although it might not be clear what maths and science has to do with that, being trained to think analytically and to question things is hugely important. It helps to ensure that you keep your eyes wide open about what’s going on in the world around you.

NASA astronaut Leland D Melvin with his dogs Jake and Scout thumb 560x448

This is definitely something that I think is highly relevant today. We are so bombarded with fake news, with alternate facts and other blatant lies. There are people who are questioning the very merits of science across all fields – from issues of climate change through to questions about medical treatments or vaccines and even evolution. I often get so riled up about these things, wondering how anyone could possibly fall for pseudoscience. I don’t know how Kartik can stay so level headed in such discussions, but he says it’s important not to just dismiss people or devolve into shouting matches. Instead, he advocates demonstrating the importance of the scientific method.

The best way we can safeguard scientific research is to be open and transparent about what we’re doing. Communicate freely and engage children at a young age. Make it clear that science is the study of “what” and “how” but not the study of “why”. Any attempt to attribute intent to science is just wrong and often not being able to discriminate this leads to really crazy ideas. Personally, I think one of the biggest issues is that people don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation. This permeates every facet of our lives. Engaging people in these discussions is ultimately the only way that we’re going to be able to secure the future of science.

Finally, I had to ask what people like us can do to get involved. I mean, I can play Civilization: Beyond Earth for hours on end, but it’s not going to make me an interstellar colonist. There are more than enough games, movies, series or books to consume on the topic, but how can any of us really get involved in space exploration without changing career paths and becoming astronauts? One cool way is to join Planet Hunters – there is so much data out there and computers aren’t robust enough to extract all the info. It’s actually quite fun to use, and has already led to the discovery of a planet that wasn’t spotted by scientists.

NASA pretty picture

You can also join or start astronomy clubs, science open days and other small-scale events. There’s even a cool concept of an “unconference” such as Space Up. It might sound silly for people to discuss everything from cupcakes to space transit at the same event, but it’s things like this that can make science and space more accessible, and even lead to the development of startups, problem solving and future partnerships.

So, the next time you’re scanning a planet or shooting aliens in your favorite space game, just remember that exploring and experiencing space isn’t so far off, and isn’t just for the elite few. Space is becoming a common place for all of us, no matter where we live or what we do. The final frontier might just have room for us all.

Last Updated: February 8, 2017

Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. I believe people should stop defining themselves and just enjoy playing games, so let’s get on with it!

  • Original Heretic

    I was one of those kids that wanted to be an astronaut. I had the maths and science all the way through school, had that down.
    But my eyes failed me. Bastards.

    • Zoe Hawkins

      awwww, that sucks! stupid eyes. if only Event Horizon were right – “where we’re going, you don’t need eyes to see!” 😛

      • Original Heretic

        Coupled with my crippling fear of heights, I was doomed to fail!

    • HairyEwok

      Same, my eyes and height failed me. Apparently you need to be a certain height to be an astronaut (I’m 1.92m). Also apparently they only take in people at certain times since there isn’t such a big demand for astronauts.

      • Original Heretic

        Yet you call yourself an Ewok?! You’re more like 4 Ewoks standing on each others’ shoulders!

        • HairyEwok

          We’re.. I mean I’m not going to stand for this!

          • Original Heretic

            Please don’t! Rather sit down to be closer to everyone else’s level.

          • HairyEwok

            Git Gud and get on my level scrub! XD

          • Original Heretic

            To be honest, I aint that much short than you! You’re 1.92m, I’m 1.82m. But that just means I don’t need to duck when I walk through doors.

  • HvR

    Actually these days the “average astronaut” will be asian and male (although they had 2 women astronauts the last 3 yeasr) as China is the only country ramping up their space program. Only country to have their own space station,2 actually, only one still ACTIVELY pursuing post-earth orbit

    And media hype like “fake news” isn’t what is killing space science.

    It is politicians like barack Obama and the EU council, the last decade we have seen the biggest cuts to space agency budgets. Leaving them nothing more than minor participants in the ISS, few earth orbit and maybe one unmanned deep space mission a decade.

    • HvR

      Add to that BS regulations like ITAR supported by both political parties in the US; working together with the US on any project and getting any kind of international IP transfer is pretty much impossible.

  • Starlifter2

    Tell me who, exactly, will pay for Togo’s space program?

    • Chris Summers

      White monopoly money!

  • Banana Jim’s Final Form!

    I love this! I LOVE THIS!! THANK YOU ZOE!! I want more of this!

    PS: I think I just had a Ratatouille moment, with my youth flashing in front of my eyes. When I was a little kid all I wanted to be was an astronaut/paleontologist/firetruck.

  • HvR

    Anybody interest in space sciences (pretty much talking to the whipper snappers) and want to persue a carreer University Stellenbosch Electronic Systems Laboratory I think is the only university with active space projects., They do collaboration with people from CPUT and NMU etc for onboard space experiments.

    Spin off private company SCS Aerospace Group is the commercial part of the operation.

    • Banana Jim’s Final Form!

      I’ll just add, that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of their work in action, and they’re truly top notch. One of the few units at South African universities that are doing sterling work. They’re doing some really innovative stuff regarding mapping – like MIT level stuff!

      • HvR

        *now wonders if he ever met Banana Jim in person*

        • Banana Jim’s Final Form!

          Probably…. if you saw a curious looking spectacled bearded hobbit in a golf shirt, lurking around, muttering to himself…. that was me.

          • HvR

            Now you have just described half the engineering dept. I kid I kid.

            Less or more than a decade ago?

            PS – just had one of those mid life “Bloody hell I’m getting old moments”

    • konfab

      The ESL only take about 3 people a year for satellite research. So to those whipper snappers: git gud.

  • Kartik

    Hi all, very grateful to Zoe and Critical Hit for allowing me to share my thoughts on space science, exploration and technology.

    Happy to answer any questions about this article, part 1 (, or anything else space-related!

    PS: There’s a lot of interesting space stuff having in South Africa at the moment!

    • konfab

      Do you play kerbal space program? :p

      • Kartik

        Ha! I’m not an avid gamer, so the answer is no, but I have played around with the demo and I know a lot of people that have picked up basic orbital mechanics through KSP 🙂 I think there’s a lot of stuff going on in the gaming world that can help bridge the gap to the space industry.

        Are you a KSPer?

        • konfab

          I dabbled in it until I read up that their physics system is pretty simple.

          So my plan to install an array of space telescopes at each of Earth’s Lagrangian points was foiled.

          • Kartik

            There are a lot of open-source orbital mechanics tools & libraries available (including one I set up during my PhD) that you can play around with if you want to level-up from KSP 🙂

            Check out the orbit for the James Webb Space Telescope too (maybe that was your inspiration?):

    • Andre116

      Do you have any aspirations of going into space?

      • Kartik

        I do! It’s very difficult though as an EU citizen. There really aren’t enough opportunities in Europe, compared to the US. On the whole, funding for human spaceflight is quite limited and with the future after the ISS uncertain, it’s not clear where things are heading. Hopefully, space tourism of some sort will offer up a taste of what it’s like to more people within the next decade. If I don’t get to reach orbit, being an Analog Astronaut is also a great experience 🙂

    • Original Heretic

      Wow, great offer to all here! Thanks for that!

      Very serious question: As someone who studies the cosmos, do you believe that there’s life out there? Not in the microbial form, but higher forms akin to humans.
      I ask this of every space scientist that I encounter.

      • Kartik

        The question of whether there’s life elsewhere is really interesting. As a matter of statistics, I think it’s inevitable there will be extraterrestrial life of some form in the universe. The interesting thing I think is that until we’ve found life elsewhere, it’s a bit binary, in the sense that perhaps Earth is truly the only planet with life, or if there’s life elsewhere then it’s likely that the whole universe is teeming with it!

        The last 20 years of exoplanet discoveries have led most scientists, including myself to place our bets on life existing elsewhere in the Solar System too. In fact, there are theories like Panspermia ( that suggest that life didn’t even originate on Earth, but rather that we were brought here through asteroid & comet impacts.

        In terms of “intelligent life”, the situation becomes more complicated. I’m not convinced that we’ll find life like ours elsewhere, which isn’t to say that it isn’t there. It’s just that we have a poor understanding of the latter stages of evolution. Remember, the reign of humans on Earth is really a blip on the geological timeline, so we don’t know how much of a “fluke” we really are.

        There have been attempts to size up the chances of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Most famously, Frank Drake proposed the Drake equation in the early 60s ( I’m not a fan of using the Drake equation because there are still a lot of unknowns. Nevertheless, it gives you an understanding of where the uncertainty lies and what reasonable bounds are on probabilities.

        In short, I don’t know! My hunch is that “we are not alone” but only time will tell 🙂 The more money we can pump into the research, the more data we’ll be able to collect and the faster we can pin down the chances.

        • Original Heretic

          So, plainly put, you have an open mind about. Good to hear!
          Yeah, I’m familiar with the Drake Equation. Fermi’s Paradox comes into play here as well. No evidence, but high statistical chance.
          Though I think that Carl Sagan summed in up rather nicely when he said “If there is no life out there, it would be an awful waste of space”.

          • Kartik

            Yes indeed! I think that there’s a reasonable chance that over the next decade or two a Mars rover will discover (fossilized) life of some sort. However simple the life form might be, it’ll definitely challenge a lot of world views.

            If we get our act together and up financing of space exploration, there’s a chance that in our lifetimes we’ll see a Europa mission, which could definitely open up the discussion. There’s a lot of work being done in this direction. A report was just handed in to NASA for instance for a Europa lander: The report can be found here:

            Carl Sagan is a great source of witty quotes 🙂

          • Original Heretic

            What do you think of all the UFO evidence that has been gathered here in earth over the last century?
            Yes, I know, some of it is clearly fake and can be disproved quite easily.
            But in the same breath, a lot of it is VERY compelling and comes from very reputable sources.
            I found The Disclosure Project to rather thought provoking.

          • Kartik

            I have to admit, I don’t follow a lot of UFO stories, so what I’m going to say is going off of limited knowledge.

            The stuff I’ve seen is just not compelling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t meet the basic requirements for good science, e.g., repeatability, falsifiability, etc. Secondly, applying Occam’s Razor leads you to question whether there isn’t a simpler explanation. Thirdly, UFOs and conspiracy theories I’ve seen often don’t stand up to the basic laws of physics, which is never a good thing.

            Scientists are by nature skeptics, which is GOOD. A lot of people don’t realize that good scientists spend a lot of time not even believing their own results! The constant questioning and critical analysis is what leads to building up sound theory, backed by unambiguous evidence.

            As a personal anecdote, for my PhD research I studied the strange motion of a moon around Uranus. The laws of physics don’t permit a lot of solutions to explain what’s going on and so I reduced things to a central hypothesis. I used to joke that if that hypothesis was wrong, I’d have to resort to the idea that aliens are messing with the moon, just to screw with my head 😛 It’s a facetious example, but it goes to show that when there’s a simpler solution, it’s definitely more attractive.

            Can I say that UFOs don’t exist? Well no, just as I can’t say that there isn’t a unicorn flying over my house this very moment. The burden of proof lies with the people claiming these sightings, and that’s sometimes lost.

          • Original Heretic

            Skepticism is good, not just in science, but in just about everything. It’s good to be able to prove things.
            Yet even have to admit that there are plenty of things, on this world and out in the universe, that science as we know simply cannot adequately explain. We can hypothesize using our limited knowledge, yes, but unless we have all the relevant data and facts, mysterious things will remain mysterious.

            Whoa, I’ve driven you right off the original topic here! And I’m probably keeping you from important work.

            Thanks for the chat! Best of luck with your ongoing work!

          • Kartik

            Bit of a busy day so just saw your last post 🙂

            There are certainly things that science does not adequately explain. More than that though, as I stated in the interview, there are things that science CANNOT explain. Science does not pretend to address the “why” question for instance. That’s often completely misunderstood, leading to crazy theories.

            You have known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Certainly the unknown unknowns will remain a mystery, until and unless at the very least they become known unknowns 🙂

            Anyway, hope that my 2 cents have helped to shed some light on what’s going on in space and science, at least from my perspective.

            Ad astra!

  • Magoo

    Thank you for the piece.

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