Several years ago I was asked by a member of the audience why space research is so simple. Isn’t it supposed to be extremely sophisticated, being on the cutting edge of both science and technology?
This question arose after a talk of mine on melanoma formation in rats in microgravity conditions. Increased levels of tumor formation were observed in those critters when they were subjected to it, as compared with 1g. This question came together with the query as to what is the importance of this kind of research, but this topic is addressed in my previous post (there I am defending the field of astrobiology, but similar logic can be applied to space medicine as well).
The article in question was two pages long and admittedly consisted of some of the most basic scientific methods I have seen myself in recent years. As the person in question put it, it surely must have been done a long time ago (AND “What are they doing with all this money they receive? Shouldn’t they [the money] be rather going somewhere else?”). The public (in this case it was a scientist, but in the matters of space research even most members of the academic community can be compared to the awareness level of a member of the public, since selective ignorance to all things space is a thing I have come to know a lot) seems to be unaware of the tremendous difficulties surrounding anything flown into space, even if it is destined for low-earth orbit residence, and not Titan or Europa. Even if such experiments are a priority (and on most occasions they are not, coming second to manned space missions), the weight, physical dimensions, together with power requirements and interrelation with other experiments and equipment on board (and most importantly with astronauts and their time) puts a great pressure on the principal investigators and their teams. Thus, they are often limited and have to settle for small-scale and simple scientific experiments. Also there is an additional need for ground-based controls and backup experiments in case of failure.
Still, as everything else in science, this is a learning curve. More sophisticated experiments are coming in the future and I am sure they will satisfy the tastes of even the greatest doubters.
I am tempted to address the issue of the importance of this type of research (space biology). There are two main reasons to conduct this in space:
1. Another and completely unique perspective. The conditions in space are unlike anything else on our planet and will offer us a completely different point of view. And as we all know, sometimes this is all it takes for a discovery to be made.
2. Space is humanity’s future.