How NASA’s space travel mission could improve development on Earth

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Meetings on research infrastructure are usually sober affairs — even the word infrastructure is pretty off-putting.

So there was some excitement when Mae Jamieson, America’s first female black astronaut, chose to address a workshop on Europe-African collaboration on building such infrastructures.

Jamieson’s message, delivered appropriately on International Women’s Day, itself had an exotic dimension.

She was visiting Brussels as part of a European trip to promote the Starship 100 mission. This is a futuristic programme, financed partly by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and partly by the US military, to prepare the groundwork for a possible mission outside the solar system within the next 100 years.

The idea sounds remote from contemporary concerns. But Jamieson affairs — whose impressive CV includes both an engineering degree and more than two years working as a doctor with the Peace Corps in Liberia affairs — is keen to argue that Starship 100 has direct relevance to the modern world, including the problems facing developing countries.

“We are talking about building the capacities required for humans to travel to the stars, not about launching an actual mission,” Jamieson told the workshop, which was being held as part of the meeting EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration.

“And we are using this to help force the development of technologies that could prove useful to this mission affairs — but may also have applications to meeting the needs of today.”

She later explained to SciDev.Net that although Starship 100 is primarily about building the technological capacity to travel to the stars, “everything we will need is also related to what we need to survive on earth”.

For example, astronauts engaged in a multi-year mission would require new, non-polluting sources of energy. They would also need to “look at health in a different way”, since they would not have immediate access to advanced medical skills and complex medical facilities.

Asked how much interest she felt there would be in a manned voyage to the stars for those living in poverty in the developing world, she points to the mission’s logo, which has an image of the constellation Canopus.

“This is a constellation that appears over the Rift Valley [in East Africa], where it is familiar to people,” she explains. “Every group of people in the world has its astronomers; it is not an activity confined to the industrialised west.”

Exotic as it may sound, we are likely to hear more of Starship 100, which already has the support of former president Bill Clinton, even in the context of science and development.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

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