Forging a new path for diversity in outer space

Editor’s note: This piece was originally submitted as an introduction to Diversity essay contest progress notes.

“The final frontier space.” But what if those limits aren’t for all of us?

The stars are moving across the dark sky.Of the nearly 600 people who have gone to space in the past 60 years, the vast majority of males have been white. If this group includes the majority of the physiological and psychological data related to human adaptation to space, the data may not be as informative as the variety of people who travel to space. We see the same problem of insufficient recruitment of underrepresented minorities found in clinical trials and other ground-only research. Why is space inherently different?

I’m not the first person to learn about these issues, but I’m part of the team creating the solution.

At the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), we know that our scientific research needs to be applicable to diverse populations. However, this is only one aspect of the problem. We are also committed to making sure that underrepresented researchers can engage with problems facing space health.

This situation means that we need to make a big change in ourselves. We created a program targeting underrepresented researchers and understanding the barriers to applying for and receiving grants to work in space health research. Our program has just begun but we are already seeing the huge impact that can be made.

I hear the same thing over and over again from researchers and underrepresented communities, “Space is baffling; it’s not for me” or “We have problems here on Earth. Why should we care about space?” But they don’t see what I see. I see a new society with the same institutional systemic problems – instead just on the moon. This futuristic colony practices medicine in space but does not understand how variation in drug metabolism based on gender or race is exacerbated by the effect of the space environment on the human body. Lunar obstetrics / women need to extract aspects that change women’s health as a result of lower levels of attractiveness. To answer these questions, we need people from all backgrounds to think about and investigate these questions.

Our goal is to tell everyone that space is for all of us. That’s easy to explain now, given what a great year the space has had in the public eye. In 2021, commercial space missions have exploded. Celebrities we know and love like Michael Strahan and William Shatner have gone to space for short trips and come back to tell the rest of us how transformative their brief experiences were. It’s easy to see these flights as a waste of money, but it’s also easy to understand that these flights are new opportunities to study more diverse, non-professional astronauts and their adaptation to the space environment. More than that, these trips are only the beginning. The more experts who are currently underrepresented focus on Earth rather than space, the less represented people will be excluded from the conversation.

Therefore, we must engage the unrepresented communities so that they become astronauts who go into space and become researchers who 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 fore and help us meet the difficult challenges of living and working in space.

And most importantly, the space should be accessible to all of us. We can’t be a human race that makes our inequalities out of Earth’s atmosphere. We cannot separate the upper strata of society from the rest between Earth and outer space. Then we shall rise to another failed attempt at ‘separate but equal’, and, having learned nothing of our earthly history, we may repeat it again in heaven and heavenly bodies hitherto unknown.

Written by Kathryn Domingo, associate research director of the Space Health Translational Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

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