This guest contribution is part of our ISS20 series commemorating 20 years of continuous human presence on the ISS through a collection of visionary contributions on the future of space.
Anna-Sophia Boguraev is an alumnae of the Genes in Space program, where she demonstrated the viability of using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify DNA in microgravity. She graduated from Yale University with an M.S. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and is currently an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying bioastronautics and medicine.
The bulky white extravehicular activity (EVA) suits that connote “astronaut” in the public psyche are more than 40 years old, and they are not designed for women. Still worn by astronauts today, the spacesuits were made to fit the men who first flew to the Moon. These spacesuits are the history of human spaceflight, but they are not its future.
Over the last 20 years of crewed spaceflight, scientists and engineers have focused on building the technology to help us get “boots on the ground.” But I am convinced that the next 20 years of human presence in space will not be focused on the rockets and the rovers. Instead, the future of space is the spacesuits and the people who will fill them: Who, exactly, is going to be in those boots, and what are we doing to keep them alive?
Who Belongs in the Boots?
Two summers ago, I found myself sitting on the floor of the NASA Ames Intern Lodge, surrounded by about 30 other summer interns. Together, we were watching the movie “Hidden Figures,” learning about how Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan helped define the trajectory of human spaceflight. The white EVA suits did not yet exist, but the culture that designed them did.
Spaceflight’s past is remembering that every American that has stepped on the Moon has been a white man. It is the discomfort, like that of a mis-sized suit, when you learn that there have only been 18 Black astronauts, and only six of them were women. It is growing up not learning about Mae Jeminson, only the Apollo men (and maybe Sally Ride).
However, sitting on that cool tile floor, I saw what NASA will look like—what space will look like—in 20 years. That room of 30 college students, all hoping to play a part in the future of human space exploration, was more than half female, and less than half white. When I talk about science to kids, neither their race nor their gender bars them from being excited about the stars. If we get it right, space in 20 years will look like the students of today.
Representation and Innovation
Future astronaut diversity is both a moral and a biological imperative. While science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are notorious for leaving women and minorities behind, space is the “final frontier,” making it perhaps the last blank slate we get to not perpetuate patterns of inequality. Astronauts are inevitably role models for aspiring STEM students, so diversifying the human presence is space will be a self-sustaining endeavor, encouraging further participation and exploration in the future.
It is also a well-established fact that, when faced with a challenge (such as the many that arise over the course of a spaceflight mission), a diverse team will perform substantially better than a homogeneous group of highly skilled individuals.1 Space necessitates innovation, so it only makes sense that space in 20 years will look not like the conference rooms of the past but like the classrooms (or rooms of overeager interns) of today.
Dawn of the Molecular Space Age
The new age of crewed spaceflight is not just going to be a diversity of identity attempting to fit in a system designed for a different past. It will not be men and women donning spacesuits that “kind of” fit. This new era of spaceflight is about the people—not only their identities but also their unique biology.
When asked who works at NASA, or who goes to space, people are more inclined to say “engineers” or “rocket scientists” than “biologists” or “doctors.” But this is starting to change. The long-term presence of humans on the International Space Station (ISS) has ushered in a new age of human spaceflight, where the reliability of the infrastructure enables researchers to focus more acutely on understanding and treating the effects of microgravity on astronaut health.
We are facing a new era of space biology and medicine; in 20 years, science beyond our current imagination will be conducted in interplanetary space. When ISS construction began in 1998, all biological analysis relied on Earth. It was not until 15 years later that fundamental biochemical techniques, such as pipetting, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), fluorescent microscopy, and DNA sequencing were adapted for and validated in spaceflight.
Suddenly, analyses are being conducted in orbit, with much data downlinked in real time. After years of relying on earthbound tools for results, the molecular space age has arrived.
Making the Suit Fit
Thanks to the untethering of biology from Earth, we will spend the next 20 years answering fundamental bioastronautics questions. Some of these questions are already being addressed: System by system, astronaut health is being broken down by research groups into digestible parts.
At first, this will be the path of progress. One group will figure out how to resist harmful radiation. Another, how to decelerate microgravity-induced musculoskeletal atrophy. Others will work on restoring gut microbiota, preventing immune system suppression, or preparing the brain for long-duration isolation.
But over time, these small steps will come together, summed into giant leaps. And the ones taking these leaps will be the students of today. These are the students who I’ve sat with at lunch and talked about building a spacesuit that monitors immune function. These are the students who read about the MIT-designed bio-suit2 before bed and wonder if the mechanical counterpressure could not only protect from spaceflight but also mitigate space-induced osteoporosis.
In 20 years, space will look like the students I’ve seen stand up at conferences to ask about how the Artemis mission suits will be better designed to fit the female form. They will be the students who interrupt lab meetings to question if the medical conclusions about the risks of microgravity can be applied to demographics other than white men.
In 20 years, space will look like the dreams of today’s students. The people working there, and those supporting them on the ground, will look a little more like a true cross-section of the United States. And we won’t be bound by tradition or expectation, because we were a generation raised to believe that, in this age of rocket ships, the sky is literally no longer the limit.
If the Boot Fits
Two summers ago, as “Hidden Figures” ended, I stayed sitting on the floor as interns scattered into the night. Soon, only a few girls remained. We talked about Katherine Johnson. We talked about Mae Jamison, Sunita Williams, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor. Earlier that day, one of us toured the campus with Yvonne Cagle. We wondered if this is what the future of space would look like.
In time, our conversation turned to spacesuits. We questioned whether the EVA shells would fit us. Someone mentioned the new SpaceX flight suits. Someone else talked about the Wanderers project: conceptual, 3D-printed hybrids between art and the theory that living microbial matter could be integrated into spacesuits to help sustain life in hostile environments.
We got paper. We started drawing and kept talking. We imagined spacesuits designed to harness the power of microbes or enzymes to recycle short-term waste such as carbon dioxide. Spacesuits filled with monitors to provide complex, biometric feedback. Spacesuits that improve wearable medical technology on Earth. Spacesuits that walk for you, spacesuits that make you look like a superhero, spacesuits that sound like they belong in a science fiction magazine.
To imagine what space will look like in 20 years, we need to think about these spacesuits and the people who will fill them. These spacesuits will be designed by us, and for us. And if they don’t fit, we won’t grin and bear it. We will understand that it’s time to once again start learning, start drawing, start pushing the boundaries of human ability and, once again, make something new.
Sixty years ago, 20 years ago, and today, going to space means that, if the spacesuit (kind of) fits, you wear it. But looking at the table of scrap paper, I had no doubt that when we built those spacesuits to travel to the ISS, the Moon, or Mars, they will be made to fit us all.