Monica’s log, Stardate… I have been wanting to articulate some of my thoughts about the notion of time and effort for the space industry. Allow me to state some of my premises in advance.
First. Space research, travel, and exploration are essential for the survival of our civilization. Out of trillions of galaxies and planets formed over billions of years in this vast and expanding universe, we have no backups. We depend completely on this spaceship called Planet Earth. Beyond any human-made threats, the universe is also violently creative, and expanding at an accelerated rate. Our planet may be at risk of cosmic forces such as asteroid impacts, solar storms, gamma-ray bursts, collisions from nearby galaxies, changes in the sun, and much more.
Second. To become a truly multi-planet species, it’s essential to transcend beyond Earth. To transcend is to go beyond the self. It means contributing to something greater for the livelihood of future generations with the knowledge that results will be probably reaped by others. This aspirational and growth-mindset has made the difficult possible. It has defined many moments in our modern space history.
Third. If we go beyond the global financial perspectives or agency-wide economic impact studies, without a doubt, space research and exploration have enabled some of the most essential technologies on Earth. One cannot coexist without the other. Space research and exploration have advanced knowledge that impacts every area of our modern reality. It has contributed to many technologies such as the global positioning system (GPS), weather forecasting, autonomous vehicles, robotics, scratch-resistant lens, camera phones, among many others.
In the United States, for example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - NASA Technology Transfer Program, which dates back to 1964 also produces NASA's Spinoff publication. This publication was started in 1976. It has showcased the roughly 2,000 NASA-driven technologies that have been turned into commercial-products. And quite often as a result of private-public partnerships.
It takes years and sometimes decades for us to move towards certain milestones in space research, travel, and exploration. The simplest notion of time for the space sector is infinitely more drawn out and complex than everything we could imagine. Veterans in the industry know this. It takes public-private alliances, long-term vision, and a robust financial backing over considerable sustained periods to accomplish big feats for space.
It involves playing the long game. And it requires being ready to work at historical junctures where the technologies, materials, and workforce needed are probably not ready yet.
In an era where real-time and faster isn’t fast enough, this notion of time may be similar to how time appears to us in the distant universe. The farther away, the longer it takes. Or on a deeper level, echoing the type of conversation that continues to captivate theoretical physicists and astrophysicists alike, possibly how big feats seem to move so very slowly to where we want and need to to be despite our best efforts.
Of course, one could argue that movement somewhere is better than nowhere. For the sake of simplicity, let’s get back to the notion of playing the long game.
An example of leaders playing the long game in the space sector is LATCOSMOS. LATCOSMOS is a regional private space development initiative developed within the framework of the International Astronautical Federation Latin American and Caribbean Regional Group (GRULAC). With additional U.S-based partners, LATCOSMOS is supported and advised by the Agencia Espacial Civil Ecuatoriana - EXA (Ecuadorian Civil Space Agency).
The LATCOSMOS-C program seeks to fly a crewed suborbital mission 100 km above Earth’s surface on board Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable launch vehicle. This first mission is called ESAA-01 EX SOMINUS AD ASTRA. It seeks to advance scientific research for the region. Given Blue Origin’s ongoing developments and tests on its launch vehicles, dates for this flight are yet to be determined. However, what is different and unique about LATCOSMOS is its proposal for the first Latin American-born only crewed-mission.
With a key target of at least ten crewed spaceflight missions in the Latin American and Caribbean region, this is a bold and ambitious plan for LATCOSMOS-C. It leverages regionally-developed knowledge, technologies, and experience. And it seeks to prepare local talent for the future of the region in the booming space economy.
For this first proposed historic suborbital flight , four payload specialists would undergo a proprietary Advanced Suborbital Astronaut Training Program (ASA/T).
This abbreviated version, developed by EXA and the GCTC (Yuri A. Gagarin State Scientific Research-and-Testing Cosmonaut Training Center), anticipates preparing the payload specialists in the United States, Canada, Russia, and Ecuador. The confirmed candidates include two university-professors, Dr. Adolfo Chaves Jiménez (Costa Rica), Dr. José Alberto Ramírez (Mexico), and one elementary-school teacher, Margot Solberg (USA).
I had the opportunity to speak recently with LATCOSMOS Mission Commander Ronnie Nader. With degrees in systems engineering and astrobiology, Commander Nader pushes the boundaries. Ecuador’s first and only cosmonaut, he is the first civilian in modern history to complete the cosmonaut training at the GCTC (ASA / T degree - Advanced Suborbital Astronaut Trained) with the support of the Fuerza Aérea Ecuatoriana - FAE (Ecuadorian Air Force).
He founded EXA at the conclusion of his training in 2007 and has been serving as its Space Operations Director. Under his leadership, EXA pioneered Latin America’s first zero-gravity flight in Ecuador on 2008, as well as the country’s first satellites in orbit.
Commander Ronnie Nader. EXA. September 2020.
In our video call, Commander Nader stressed the following:
“You must have the courage to live up to your dreams…[t]o move from a single-planet economy to a multi-planet economy…We cannot stay behind. [And] it's not just doing things, it's how. It’s not a matter of just reaching the goal, it’s the path.”
His emphasis is clear about the need to further local expertise. EXA, for instance, possesses locally-developed technology, testing facilities, and the HERMES-A ground station. EXA has also signed lunar exploration payload agreements with space robotics companies such as Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and London-based Spacebit.
When I mentioned my interest to Commander Nader about this article, which addressed the long-term vision needed in the space sector, he confirmed it. LATCOSMOS-C was proposed in 2017. However, like most space missions that play the long-game, it has been 14-years in the making.
With an increased momentum for civilian spaceflight missions and the need for commercial astronaut training programs, LATCOSMOS-C is setting a course and pushing ahead to prepare talent for the region. Like so many pioneers and enthusiasts, his perspectives reminded me exactly how much of a long-term framework is needed to succeed in the space industry.
As I set out to wrap up our call, Commander Nader explained to me:
“Why do something and not dedicate yourself to push the limits? We are thinking in decades, generations…Our purpose to save the species [involves some us] leaving [Earth] and beginning in other worlds…”
Dr. Adolfo Chaves Jiménez, a Costa Rican-born space systems engineer and researcher, is one of the confirmed payload specialists for the mission ESAA-01 EX SOMINUS AD ASTRA. Dr. Chaves currently serves as Lecturer of Electronic Engineering at the Tecnológico de Costa Rica - TEC (Costa Rica Institute of Technology), and as Coordinator of the Space Systems Laboratory - SETEC Lab in the same institution.
Dr. Adolfo Chaves. SETEC Lab. October 2020.
The TEC is the country’s most established ecosystem in higher-education for engineering, science, and technology research. SETEC-Lab is currently the only of its kind in Central America. Dr. Chaves also contributed and coordinated efforts on behalf of the TEC to Proyecto Irazú. Proyecto Irazú is the first Costa Rican and Central American satellite launched to orbit in 2018.
I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Chaves on a 1-1. His insights on long-term thinking for success in space coincide with those of Commander Nader. As early as the 1990s, Dr. Chaves set out in a path to pursue his goals. He was inspired by the historic legacy of the Costarican-born and former NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, who was inducted to the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2012. Dr. Chaves, like many of us, dreamt about flying to space early on by watching Dr. Chang-Díaz on his seven Space Shuttle missions. Born and raised in Costa Rica myself, I could understand on a visceral level what Dr. Chaves meant during our call.
“I dreamed of studying space engineering in Costa Rica but it didn't exist. There was no [formal] road…[So] I made sure that the actions and steps I took, brought me closer to my goal, even though I saw it from very far away…”
Dr. Chaves eventually undertook his doctoral studies at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. He emphasized why he returned to Costa Rica. He wanted to co-create the future with younger generations.
“I decided that this was the meaning of my professional life. I take satisfaction in opening a road for others when there is none…When one has a clear goal, it is not passion. Passion fades when things go wrong. It is a matter of purpose.”
Dr. Chaves is also currently part of the interdisciplinary team that seeks to formalize the creation of the Agency Espacial de Costa Rica - AEC (Costa Rican Space Agency) in the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly via Project 21.330. When I asked his last thoughts about his upcoming training for the crewed spaceflight mission, he unequivocally added:
“Training never ends. All things are part of the training.”
We hear the call for a long-term vision for space. Yet few rarely understand what it truly means. Commander Nader and Dr. Chaves Jimenéz both remind us of the fundamental prerequisites to transcend to other worlds.
Time and effort.
The space industry requires a notion of time that seems infinitely longer and more drawn out than for most of our human endeavors. It also requires substantial efforts. These efforts supersede any single-person, company, country, and agency.
In a frenzied pace of distractions and change, if we are to survive and thrive, we must keep steady on the course for space research, travel, and exploration. The actions we take now will directly affect the opportunities available to our civilization here on Earth and in other worlds.
Top banner - photo credits: Hubble Space Telescope. This is one of the deepest views of the universe in near-infrared light. It is also titled the eXtreme Deep Field. It combines 10-years of photographs, i.e. the deepest images of the universe ever captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.