Being confronted with the “what’s the point?” type of a question is not a rare thing for astrobiologists. People wonder why should anything be done in space since there are so many important issues that remain unresolved on earth itself today. I am not going to argue the point of the unwavering spirit of human exploration, nor the benefits of colonization of other worlds. There are entire books written on the subject and I believe the concepts are not difficult to grasp.
What I am going to do now is provide a very specific example of exactly how astrobiological research can be directly beneficial for the well being of human life on earth. Thus even if one ignores the “spiritual” and philosophical reasons behinds the science, there are still many reasons as to why the field show grow.
The topic of one of my internships (at DLR, the German Aerospace Center) was connected with the field of Planetary Protection. The concept was discussed in one of my previous posts. One of the many methods used nowadays for sterilization of spacecraft is plasma (a mixture of several noble gases through which an electrical current flows). Many factors, such as release of oxygen radicals, prove to be detrimental to even the hardiest organisms known on Earth, thus effectively reducing the amount of microorganisms present on the spacecraft. The implications of such research on fields such as medicine are enormous. Nowadays there is a search for new sterilizing procedures. Those that can be executed at low temperatures are especially convenient since much of the modern surgical equipment in hospitals is made from plastic, thus is prone to damage from intense heat.
By developing new methods for reducing interplanetary transfer of organisms, advances which will decrease the risk of infections in hospitals is achieved too.