What Space Can Teach Us About Representation and Robotics

Developing indigenous knowledge and regional expertise will harness the new space ecosystem.

Moni's selfie with an android-inspired metallic bust in the backdrop. Glitch aesthetic.
“Mr. Rockwell and I” by Monica Hernandez. 2021. [r].

Diego Urbina and I assessed the importance of regional space initiatives. Rising talent cannot depend on the traditional agency conduits at home to develop a space-related career. And yet, not everyone can relocate to foreign countries with established government space programs or robust space startup ecosystems. Thus, the brain drain is both a liability and a chronic loss to local space ecosystems.

Born and raised in Colombia, Diego pivoted to the space industry during his university studies in Europe. He worked on the design and simulation of a star tracker for a nanosatellite

“At that point, I decided to embrace the space industry, so I pursued the Space Studies Program and the Space Studies master's degree at the International Space University. These formative couple of years changed my life. However, this lack of homegrown space references in certain regions like Latin America has a profound effect on young and emerging talent and makes it difficult for kids to dream of space. Astronauts are widely visible in space conversations around the world. And when there's representation across borders, kids can dream of becoming astronauts or see themselves as part of the space industry, because they see someone from their home country.”

I agree. A pivotal figure in my upbringing was the first Costa Rican-born NASA astronaut, Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, who traveled seven times aboard the Space Shuttle throughout the 1980s and into the 2000s. Watching him crystallized my inner conviction that we all have something to contribute to our future in space. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons why I write both in English and Spanish.

Developing indigenous knowledge and expertise may harness the much-needed excitement and momentum for the new space movement to lift off in Latin America and in countries across the globe where space agencies are at total capacity or just emerging. It can also foster the innovation and supply chains needed to prepare new generations of talent to capitalize on reductions in space cost missions.

Diego also promotes the space industry in this way:

“I use social networks to relay in several languages (Spanish, Italian, and English) about the exciting things going on in the industry.”

“Whenever I get the chance to visit Colombia, I also present at schools, universities, and conferences. I’d like to see more commitment and efforts towards supporting people, allocating budgets for lunar payloads as an example. This can continue and get stronger over time. It’s reality; it’s not science fiction. I have also begun to notice that although it’s harder to do space-related initiatives in Latin America, there’s more activity, especially about cubesats and payloads for commercial lunar lander missions. It still keeps being very expensive, but at substantially less [cost] than in the previous ten decades. And this includes launch costs.”

Diego is immersed in space robotics in his current role at the Brussels-based aerospace company Space Applications Services NV/SA. Automation and machines are essential to space endeavors. Innovations in robotics may pioneer self-replication and self-assembly protocols.

Diego explains:

“It’s clear that not everyone can leave their countries to undertake specialized studies with advanced space programs or space sciences and engineering. Also, not everyone will become an astronaut, and not everyone will have to become an astronaut.”

This reality rings true in the case of in-space environments. With cosmic radiation, toxic gaseous environments, solar winds, and every possible risk and danger that you can think of, robots sustain and enable us in space.

 Frontal view of android-inspired bust titled "Rockwell." Glitch aesthetic.
“Glitching with Mr. Rockwell” by Monica Hernandez. 2021. [r].

I support Diego’s observations. Not everyone will be able to become an astronaut, and not everyone has to become one. Given so many unknowns, the future needs in space—which may be hard to see from our present reality—will depend on human-machine partnerships. This is a critical realization for geographic regions with a strong talent pool in machine learning, AI, software engineering, and automation. A majority of what we will do in space will not be possible without advanced autonomous robots. Advances in robotics will help us foresee and want what we were unaware that we needed. Emerging regions may already have a competitive edge to support in-space robotic missions.


Stream of consciousness [photos]

The android-inspired bust is titled Rockwell. The bust is made of scrap metals by sculptor Lewis Tardy.

Sculpture welded steel found objects | Sculptures By Lewis Tardy
Tardysculpture Sculptures By Lewis Tardy Bio-Mechanical surrealistic futuristic robotic Welded steel and found object sculpture

I added my glitch twist to the photos I captured at his exhibit in South Florida because I wanted to convey the potential grey zones we'll soon face in a human-robotic society.