Editor’s note: This piece was originally submitted as an entry to the Progress Notes’ Diversity Essay Contest.
“Space: the final frontier.” But what if that frontier isn’t for all of us?
Out of the approximately 600 people who have gone to space in the past 60 years, the overwhelming majority have been white and male. If this group encompasses the majority of physiological and psychological data related to human adaptation to space, then the data might not be as useful as the people traveling into space diversifies. We see the same issue of insufficient subject recruitment from underrepresented minorities found in clinical trials and other research that takes place solely on Earth. Why would space be inherently different?
I’m not the first person to recognize these issues, but I am a part of the team creating the solution.
At the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), we realized that our scientific research must be made applicable to diverse groups. However, that’s only one facet of the problem. We also are committed to making sure that underrepresented researchers could engage in the problems confronting space health.
This situation meant that we needed to make a significant change in ourselves. We created a program targeting underrepresented researchers and understanding their barriers to applying for and obtaining grants to work on space health research. Our program has only started but we already see what a tremendous impact can be made.
I hear the same thing over and over from underrepresented researchers and communities, “Space is mystifying; it’s not for me” or “We have problems here on Earth. Why should we care about space?” I recognize their passion to take care of the community they see in front of them here on Earth. But they don’t see what I see. I see a new community that has the same institutionally systemic issues – instead it’s just on the moon. This future colony practices medicine in space but doesn’t understand how variability in drug metabolism based on gender or ethnicity is further compounded by the impact of the space environment on the human body. Lunar ob/gyns need to tease out what aspects of women’s health change as a result of lower gravity levels. To answer these questions, we need people from all backgrounds to think and investigate these questions.
Our goal is to tell everyone that space is for all of us. It’s a little easier to explain now, given the incredible year that space has had in the public eye. In 2021, commercial space missions exploded. Celebrities we know and love like Michael Strahan and William Shatner went to space on short trips and came back to tell the rest of us how transformative their brief experiences were. It’s easy to see these jaunts as a waste of money, but it’s also easy to understand that these trips are new opportunities to study more diverse, non-professional astronauts and their own adaptation to the space environment. More than that, these flights are just the beginning. The more currently underrepresented experts focus on Earth instead of space, the more underrepresented peoples will be left out of the conversation.
Therefore, we must engage underrepresented communities to both become astronauts that go to space and become researchers that study space today, so that our space communities of tomorrow can be diverse. We need people from all perspectives and backgrounds to bring new ideas to the forefront and help us tackle the hard challenges of living and working in space.
Most importantly, space must be accessible for all of us. We can’t be a human race that brings our inequalities beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. We can’t separate the upper echelons of society and everyone else between Earth and outer space. Then we would be rising to another failed attempt at “separate but equal” and, having learned nothing from our terrestrial history, we might repeat it again in skies and celestial bodies yet unknown.
By Catherine Domingo, research administration associate with the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine