From Wright to Musk: 4 Things You Didn’t Know About the Next Era of Aero
by Hannah Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation
Modern humans have been around for ~200,000 years, but we’ve only been airborne for .06% of that time. In that time we’ve graduated from flying 120 feet off the ground to sending humans 238,855 miles away to land on the Moon. Today, we’re on the cusp of a new era of innovation that’s combining the unquenchable desire to explore space with the need to address real problems on Earth.
On a crisp October morning in 2011, a data scientist from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative delivered a riveting lecture on how satellite imagery was being used to identify mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. At the time, I was an student pursuing astrophysics, but had been struggling to reconcile a love for space with a love for humanity.
I was chased by the classic question of, “Why should we explore space when we have so many problems right here on Earth?”
Because we can do both. That day I turned away from pure research and entered an industry where companies were creating technologies that leverage space to improve life on Earth. Here are a few things you might not know about the work of these modern pioneers:
#1 Finding Survivors: After the devastation of the earthquake that laid waste to so many communities in Nepal, Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based space startup, used its constellation of imaging cubesats to help Zooniverse identify a village that had not yet been found by rescue teams. Researchers are also using imagery from Planet Labs, Skybox and others to detect poverty-stricken areas based on the types of roofs. What could we have known if this technology had matured earlier, if this data had been available to citizens of Allied nations during World War II? How many lives could we have saved with access to data about our planet?
#2 Disaster Warnings: GeoOptics, another California-based space startup, is creating better weather prediction technologies using high cadency small satellites, able to better predict natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. Early warnings are critical to successful evacuations.
#3 Boosting the Economy: Orbital Insight and SpaceKnow are just two of many organizations applying machine learning and image processing techniques to satellite data-sets in order to predict crop outcomes, track deforestation, inform financial decisions and more.
#4 STEM Inspiration: Humanitarian and environmental benefits aren’t the only things space companies are bringing to the American and international economy. The new wave of space companies enable young people to have an unprecedented imact, which in turn stimulates STEM education and attracts diverse talent. In the year I spent working at Planet Labs I was challenged and inspired and gained more confidence in my technical expertise than in three years working with NASA. On the Monday of my first week at Planet Labs, I was setting up my workstation, by Wednesday I’d built more than 20 ground stations and radios, and by Friday I shipped code to more than 28 satellites. A year later I had shipped thousands of lines of code written at my desk in San Francisco to more than 100 satellites orbiting the Earth hundreds of kilometers above me.
Today, the space industry welcomes people of all ages and all disciplines to come make an impact on the adventure of exploration, the environment and humanity.