…how going to space can help us on Earth? (with Sian Proctor)

Ever Wonder? / March 1, 2023
Dr. Sian Proctor at analog site
Image attribution
Courtesy of Dr. Sian Proctor

A while back we chatted with Sian Proctor (@DrSianProctor), an analog astronaut and geoscience professor at  South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, AZ. We got some insight on what analog astronauts do and what it’s like to live in a mock Mars habitat for months in Hawaii but today we ask

Do you ever wonder how going to space can help us on Earth?

Sian Proctor’s specialty is geologic disasters, she looks into how these disasters impact humans’ ability to survive. Now the real question is how does studying geologic disasters prepare us for space exploration or better yet how does space exploration help us get through the natural disasters here on earth!? Could it be that if “we solve for space we solve for earth”

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Jennifer Aguirre (00:06):

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Jennifer Aguirre. A while back we chatted with Sian Proctor, an analog astronaut and geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. We learned all about what analog astronauts do and what it's like to live in a mock Mars habitat for months in Hawaii. It's fun to dream about being an astronaut, but... Do you ever wonder how going to space can help us on earth? Sian Proctor's specialty is geologic disasters, things like volcanoes and deadly weather. She thinks about how these disasters impact our ability to survive on earth and how we can use these disasters to prepare for space exploration. But it doesn't stop there --- Sian explains how "solving for space" can also help us solve problems on earth. Here are hosts Devin Waller and Perry Roth-Johnson continuing their conversation with Sian...

Devin Waller (01:07):

I understand that you're interested in ways that we can work through geological disasters. Tell us a little bit about what you taught and how does that relate to space exploration?

Sian Proctor (01:17):

Yeah, so, um, my specialty is mainly geologic disasters. My last, uh, I did a sabbatical in 2012 at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute where I helped write their science of disaster curriculum for emergency managers. And basically you're looking at geologic disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes, um, but also things like deadly weather, flooding. Um, you know, these are things that have an impact on humans and our ability, not only our ability to survive, but also resources. And along with that, I also look at resource management. Um, water resources, energy resources, food resources. So when we're thinking about, um, my most popular class, it's geologic disasters and the environment. But then I also teach classes like sustainable cities, sustainable world, environmental science, and, um, the history of the earth, planetary science, life in the universe. So there's all a whole range of classes that I've been fortunate enough to be able to teach and offer at the community college. And that really relates to space exploration, especially the geologic disasters because it's all about survival and space exploration is about survival. It's about exploration, but it's ex, it's about surviving in extreme conditions, um, where if anything goes wrong, it can be a disaster and lead to death. And so that same idea of energy, um, being, you know, resource management, energy, water, food, shelter, all of those things. But then, then when a disaster happens, whatever it is, you could be like Matt Damon in the Martian, find yourself stranded. And so that's just a martian disaster instead of a earth geologic disaster.

Devin Waller (03:13):

So in a sense, by working through the issues of these really extreme natural disasters that we find here on earth, you're, you're solving for those extremes that we could, that astronauts could eventually encounter when they're out in space.

Sian Proctor (03:28):

Right. And so when you're thinking about, um, a disaster that's happened and you're talking from an emergency supply, you know, water, food, shelter, and rapid deployment of these resources, how efficient are they? Um, what technology are we using? Well, those are some of the same things that you can think about with space exploration. Like what are the best technologies? Um, what kind of systems do we put in place to mitigate against any kind of disaster? And as we're solving for space and those kinds of issues of efficiency, we're also solving for those same kinds of things here on earth. And so it's kind of this cyclical process that solving for space solves for earth, and solving for earth solves for space. And so when we start to see parallels between things like disasters and how we survive, um, when it comes to resources and resource management, and we look at space exploration and how we survive when it comes to resources and resource management, you can really start to see some parallels.

Perry Roth-Johnson (04:30):

I love that quote, you know, it of yours, if we solve for space, we solve for earth. Um, it's a nice, uh, counter to this idea sometimes that we see pop up, that we shouldn't be studying space until we solve our very significant problems here on earth, which is a reasonable, uh, uh, place to start. Cause we do have a lot of problems that we need to solve on earth, but, uh, it's not so much distracting from those problems, but it's an another solution path to solve those problems here that on earth.

Sian Proctor (04:59):

Yeah, exactly. And I think that that's what sometimes is missed in that, that the space story is the fact that, um, one, everything that we do for space, human space exploration and robotic, all of that technology and all of that information and all of those dollars are spent here on earth. So that's one of the things as an economic engine, but also that technology and stuff, there's all these spinoffs that happen that lead to real world implications. And we just don't see that because we can be enjoying, you know, instant coffee and not realize that, oh, freeze dried, where did that come from? And space exploration and thinking about that process. Um, and so how these things impact us, um, out in the real world. We just don't get those connections. But what's cool about it is when you just break it down to its basics, that space is survival in extreme conditions. It's all about, um, being efficient with water, energy, shelter, food, all of those things. Well, those are the same things that we need to thrive here on earth. And so if we can take those, uh, the technology and the efficiencies that we learn through human space flight and then apply it at a large scale here on earth, we can really make a difference.

Devin Waller (06:23):

Makes so much sense.

Jennifer Aguirre (06:26):

And that’s our show, thanks for listening! Until next time, keep wondering… Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Jennifer Aguirre, along with Perry Roth-Johnson, D Hunter White, and Karen Arroyo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We’ll drop a new episode every other Wednesday. If you’re a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you’ve been wondering about? Send us an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you’d like to hear in future episodes.