Social Distancing, Meet Space Exploration

A Future Tense event recap.

Two people on a scaffolding in front of a giant NASA logo
Workers freshen up the paint on the NASA logo on the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center on May 20 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In a moment of crisis and uncertainty, space exploration—perhaps the most expensive and aspirational of human endeavors—might not feel essential. But Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission and managing director and co-chair of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, thinks it’s more important than ever. “If there’s ever a time we need to be inspired beyond ourselves, it’s now,” she said in Tuesday’s Future Tense web event “Social Distancing, Meet Space Exploration.” Elkins-Tanton was joined by Ellen Stofan, director of the National Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist of NASA, in a discussion about how the pandemic is impacting space exploration, in practical and profound ways.

Space exploration can teach us how to survive social distancing, as Kate Greene wrote about for Future Tense in March. “Quarantine is something astronauts know a lot about,” said Stofan. She noted that quarantining before a mission has been standard practice since the beginning of space travel. Since astronauts on the International Space Station have to withstand extended periods of isolation and loneliness, studies on astronaut mental health can guide us through social distancing. Elkins-Tanton pointed out that social distancing is a misnomer; while we have to physically distance, maintaining social connection has been proven to be crucial to the well-being of people both in space and on Earth.

Elkins-Tanton also asked Stofan how leaders can justify investing in space while weighing so many other priorities. Stofan said that inspiring future scientists and spurring technological innovation is well worth the cost of space exploration. Plus, research on microgravity and its effects on cells on the International Space Station could teach us about vaccines and immunotherapy. But more broadly, she said, “When you invest in doing something really hard, you return that investment in spades to the U.S. economy.”

Part of that investment comes from a growing private space industry that will push exploration (literally) farther. Elkins-Tanton has received questions about how private companies getting involved with space transport, like the impending SpaceX rocket launch on May 27, will affect space missions. Stofan views private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origins as an “and,” not an “or,” creating opportunity for the national space programs to refocus on exploration. “The more the private sector steps up, the more the public sector steps forward,” said Stofan.

Last summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon, which created opportunities to look to both the past and the future of space exploration. Now, imagining several decades from now may be difficult. But Stofan called for the kind of optimism and ambition that spurred Apollo 11. “We need that kind of moonshot thinking to overcome things like a pandemic,” she said. Just as Apollo 11 inspired an entire generation of scientists and innovators, we need to continue space exploration for a generation of young people now stuck at home. While in quarantine, Stofan said she has been cheered by the NASA Dragonfly mission, led by principal investigator Elizabeth Turtle, which aims to reach Saturn’s largest moon, Titan—Stofan’s “favorite place in the solar system.”

As we are forced to physically distance, the collaborative spirit of space exploration can bring us together. Elkins-Tanton believes “space exploration is fundamental to the human psyche,” referring to ancient Greek astronomers who imagined technologies far beyond their reach. Through leading the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, Elkins-Tanton has found that we are all a part of space exploration: “To become an interplanetary species, we need all different disciplines. … All of the different things that make us human have to be part of this process,” she said. Alongside physics and planetary science, “the real purpose of space exploration is to remind all of us here on Earth of the miracles we can create when we’re together,” said Elkins-Tanton.

As Stofan has led the National Air and Space Museum through temporarily closing the museum and moving online, she’s seen the history of space exploration and the uncertainty of this time in a new light. “We’ve defied gravity, and we can defy a virus,” she said.

Watch the event below:

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.