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“Without research, we can have dreams, but they cannot come true”
Asgardian Minister of Science Professor Floris Wuyts is a renowned scientist with more than 210 publications and over 4,000 citations. He is an expert on the human equilibrium system, spatial disorientation and several topics in space physiology. In the past decade, he investigated more than 40 astronauts before and after their space flight. In his interview with Asgardia Space News, Dr. Wuyts discusses the purposes for the Ministry of Science of the first Space Nation.
What are the main goals for the Ministry of Science of Asgardia?
First of all, I need to emphasize that as Minister of Science, I will be executing the laws that are approved by the Parliament. So, I will be the executor of what the Parliament has decided. I will be doing that as a main task. However, that does not mean that I cannot suggest some activities and propose ideas and directions we should pursue. They should be closely aligned with each other. Asgardia’s goal is to enable humans to live in space for a certain time. This can be in habitats in low-Earth orbit, settlements on the moon and ultimately on Mars and beyond. This is a mid- to long-term endeavour, but humans need to have long-term plans. The challenge of the Ministry of Science is to provide all the needed scientific research and support for this mission, in close cooperation with the other ministries of Asgardia.
What are the key issues that have to be dealt with for enabling humans to stay in space for long periods, to explore other planets?
We have two key points for now. First - radiation protection. It is not a very big problem for the space crew of the ISS because Earth’s magnetic field provides relatively sufficient protection at the station’s altitude (400 km above Earth). Once you go deeper into space, harmful rays and cosmic particles pose a real danger. The second thing that is very important is artificial gravity. Microgravity is not particularly healthy for human beings. Microgravity leads to bone loss, muscular atrophy, cardiovascular deconditioning, fluid shift towards the upper part of the body and so on. Moving towards resolving these issues, we can work towards staying longer in space. Also, we should keep in mind a critical capability for the human exploration, ultimately, of the Solar system, namely - procreation. We have no experience with pregnancy in space, nor with giving birth to a child in space. Research on this topic is scarce and only animal studies are currently ongoing or in the pipeline. Artificial gravity as well as radiation have a great impact on this, hence the need to thoroughly study both topics.
Which method do you consider the most promising for developing protection against radiation during long missions in outer space?
There are several ongoing studies in this domain, and I’m not an expert in radiation. I know that for the travelling to Mars, for example, you may have water reservoirs that are placed around the capsule. That reduces the dose of the radiation a human gets. This proposal is based on the ability of the hydrogen atoms, which are part of the water molecule, to capture neutrons. Once on Mars or the lunar surface, special housing or caves may help protect the inhabitants from cosmic radiation and charged particles. But this is subject of specific research.
In cooperation with Russian colleagues and with neuroscientists based at the University of Antwerp led by Floris L. Wuyts, LMU neurologist Professor Peter zu Eulenburg has completed the first long-term study in Russian cosmonauts. In this study, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, they show that differential changes in the three main tissue volumes of the brain remain detectable for at least a half-year after the end of their last mission
And what solution in creating artificial gravity do you consider optimal?
That all depends of what you aim for. When your main goal is the settlement on the Moon, the issue looks easier to solve compared to a trip to a remote planet. Gravity will be needed to a certain extent anyhow. I expect that it is not necessary to have 1 G constantly. To ensure survival, 0.5 G, 0.3 G or 0.16 G like on the Moon, may be enough for your bones to continue growing, for your muscles to keep their strength, etc. So, we don’t have to go all the way to 1 G to mimic Earth’s gravity. We need to explore how microgravity or limited gravity as well as the elevated radiation levels affect the embryo. So, my suggestion would be that the first years of our science activities should focus on procreation, radiation and artificial gravity. And currently there are a couple of initiatives in this direction. However, with the exception of radiation research, this type of research is still in its nascence.
How do you intend to organise the scientific activity of the Ministry?
We would announce opportunities for research. We want to provide funding for certain periods of time, like four to six years, with obligatory intermediate evaluations of the achieved milestones that were initially pointed out. We do not need a real ‘Institute’ yet, like an ‘Asgardian Academy of Science’, housed in a building somewhere, where all the research is done. For now, we need a body through which the funding is organized. It has to be decided which groups in the world should get funding for doing specific research in collaboration with the industry and academic and research institutes. Research costs money, and it is of great importance that the money is spent well. Hereto, we will adopt similar models as those that are used by other funding bodies to identify the best research proposals. The topics of the proposals will be determined by the Ministry of Science, based on the Parliamentary Science Committee and appropriate advisory committees.
Eventually, Asgardia could play a role in getting an overview of all research that is done worldwide with respect to space. This can enhance the collaboration between labs, beyond the current country or continent borders. Similarly, Asgardia could install a ‘virtual biobank’, logging all samples for example that are brought back from space, or that are studied. The samples can be located in any place on Earth, but the central biobank would know where these samples are located, so that researchers from all over the world could have access to specific aspects of these samples. Currently, there is not such an overview, since different agencies and nations are exploring space, with only a scarce exchange of data and knowledge, let alone samples. Asgardia could play a very central role covering the whole humanity in this.
Which directions of the research do you consider preferable for the near future?
Instead of being very general and provide broad space research, we are prepared to focus on specific topics: how to put habitants on the Moon, first of all, and the effects of radiation on the human body and embryo, for instance. We can investigate systems that enable people to survive with minimal supplies. These are very specific topics. Obviously, we can build on what has already been discovered in the past.
This world changes very quickly -- in the beginning of the last century, a typical vacation was travelling to a nearby town or ultimately to the seaside, if it’s not too far. That is how our grandparents experienced travel. But our children and grandchildren will soon see opportunities of travelling to space. And when you want to go to space, you should be advised about the topics of safety, the same way you get safety advice before you engage in specific sports such as diving. The deleterious effects of microgravity on the untrained human body may be a limiting factor for some people. Asgardia provides a platform for research in all the specific domains that enable the population of space, somehow, somewhere. And Asgardia not only provides that research platform, but much more.
Do you have some expectations about the volume of the budget that the Ministry should obtain next year, and in the following years?
I’ve been told that about 40 % of Asgardia’s budget should be allocated to science. It’s fantastic, because there is no country in the world that allocates 40% of its budget to research. It’s unique. Asgardia has no need for big infrastructure. We certainly don’t have to maintain roads or build bridges. That is why we can dedicate a large portion of the budget to science. And it’s the science that has to enable the realization of the goals of Asgardia. This is a very visionary policy. Because without research, we can have dreams, but they cannot come true. It should first be approved by Parliament, obviously, so this number still can change, but it will be a considerable part of the budget, that is certain.