Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Are celebrity tourists eclipsing the real science done in space?

Captain Kirk may really be going to space, but he's not doing the real exploration, writes Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Bob McDonald's blog: Captain Kirk may really be going to space, but he's not doing the real exploration

William Shatner is scheduled to fly into space, but perhaps the late Leonard Nimoy would have been a better choice, as he played science officer Spock. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Actor William Shatner, famously known as Captain Kirk of the original 1960s Star Trek television series, is the latest in a line of celebrities slated to fly into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket. While these flights are great publicity for the emerging space tourism industry, it could overshadow the real science taking place in space.

At 90 years old, the Canadian-born Shatner will become the oldest person to ever reach space. He'll break the record set in July by 82-year-old Wally Funk, the pioneering female aviator who flew on board the first passenger flight of the Blue Origin rocket. She in turn had broken the record set by John Glenn, who spent nine days aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998 at age 77. Glenn was a former astronaut, fighter pilot who had experienced the rigours of spaceflight and knew what to expect. 

77 year-old John Glenn prepares for his 1998 space shuttle flight, 36 years after he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. (NASA)

Mr. Shatner may find the ride to space a little less comfortable than the bridge of the starship Enterprise. He'll face the physical challenges of launch and re-entry as he is carried aloft on a straight up, straight down hop above the atmosphere. It may not be the crowning achievement of his long acting career, but it will be a major accomplishment for a very senior citizen.

Space tourism is definitely taking off. Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old billionaire behind Blue Origin and founder of Amazon, also flew on his rocket's first passenger flight in July. That was just over a week after fellow billionaire and space tourism entrepreneur, Richard Branson, flew aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane at the age of 71.

In September four space tourists spent three days in orbit aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. And a Russian actor and film director are now aboard the International Space Station to shoot a movie about a medical emergency in space. Even Tom Cruise is talking about filming action scenes on the space station.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches carrying passengers Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, his brother Mark Bezos, Oliver Daemen and Wally Funk, from its spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, on July 20, 2021. (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

All this may sell tickets for space tourism and blockbuster movies, but will it detract from the real science that has been going on for more than 20 years on the space station by dedicated astronauts who spend years training for each flight?

The International Space Station is first and foremost a scientific laboratory operated by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European nations. Oh, and it happens to be in space.

The walls, ceilings and floors are packed with scientific experiments holding everything from growth chambers that study how plants survive in microgravity, to a flame box that watches fire progress without gravity, to an aquarium and rodent box where we can see how animals adapt to a weightless world.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives himself a flu shot for an ongoing study on the human immune system Sept. 24, 2015 in space. The vaccination is part of NASA's Twins Study, a compilation of multiple investigations that take advantage of a unique opportunity to study identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, while Scott spends a year aboard the International Space Station and Mark remains on Earth. (NASA via Getty Images)

Over more than 20 years of operations, thousands of experiments have been done in the space laboratory, many of them using the astronauts and cosmonauts themselves as subjects.

For example, Scott Kelly spent almost a year up there and was part of a study that compared him to his identical twin who remained on Earth in an effort to understand the effects of prolonged spaceflight on the human body. This will be an important issue for future spacefarers who will make the long journey to Mars and back.

While NASA and the other space agencies have done a good job justifying the need for these experiments, what they don't seem to be as good at is advertising the results. We seldom hear about new drugs, new breakthroughs or new products that were developed thanks to research done on the space station, though NASA's website points to a raft of findings, from drugs for cancer, and muscular dystrophy, to new understandings of bone loss, to environmental science to improved water purification systems.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan (right) was the last of 13 research subject volunteers who participated in NASA’s Fluid Shifts study during his mission on board the International Space Station. Researchers were studying how the fluid shifts affect vision and the brain, why some astronauts are affected more than others, and what solutions might help. Astronaut Jessica Meir (left) worked on a study that used mice in space to model Earth-based diseases that cause muscle and bone loss. (NASA)

It is interesting that much of the public knows more about the adventures of a fictional space traveller on a fictional starship than they do about the actual people who are up there in a real space station.

It would be in the best interest of the space agencies to do a better job of publicizing the results of their space station research. It would go a long way towards justifying the upwards of $100 billion invested in the ISS. Otherwise it could end up looking like the world's most expensive movie set. Space science may not be as exciting as an action movie or seeing your favourite celebrity floating weightless, but it can still be enormously valuable.

In the meantime, good luck Mr. Shatner, as you boldly go where no nonagenarian has gone before.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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