Podium: Britain must join the manned space programme

Taken from the Senior House Officer's lecture given at the Futures in UK Space Biomedical Research Conference
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The Independent Culture
THE INTERNATIONAL community stands poised before perhaps the most exciting chapter in manned space flight operations since the Apollo era. The International Space Station (ISS) represents one of the most ambitious efforts in space operations yet undertaken. Already seven stories high, once complete it will be visible from the Earth's surface with the naked eye; literally a new star on the horizon. One of the principal aims of this 15-year project is to provide a platform for space biomedical and life sciences research, in preparation for future deep-space missions.

It is hoped that through this venture the international community will further its understanding of the effects of long-duration space flight upon the human body and develop new methods for sustaining life in that hostile environment. In addition, this unique laboratory will provide insight into everyday medical problems and yield new healthcare technology.

ISS represents the first truly international effort in manned space flight operations and promises to tax the joint resources of the American, Russian, Canadian, Japanese and European space agencies. It is an effort from which the United Kingdom has thus far excluded itself.

The Advanced Projects team at Nasa is also actively planning a 1,000- day manned mission to Mars, and proposals for establishing a lunar outpost are also under consideration. It has been recognised that these lengthy ventures will require global co-operation and, to this end, existing agencies have been encouraging involvement in ISS and the future of the manned space flight effort. The European Space Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have been attempting to further the involvement of the UK in its operations. It is therefore an unusually opportune time to be considering establishing a research facility that is dedicated to space life sciences and biomedical research.

The field of space biomedical research is in its infancy and thus has, until recently, remained largely unnoticed by the scientific community. However, the knowledge base and expertise in this area are expanding rapidly. The launch of the first components of the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of last year marked the beginning of a new chapter in manned space flight operations and the world's first truly pan-international effort in this field. Once fully operational, ISS will serve as a dedicated physical and space life sciences research platform.

There are two certainties: the space programme will continue to gather momentum, and the field of space biomedical research will continue to mature. The UK cannot afford to exclude itself from this effort indefinitely. The days of the national agency are gone, and the space race is over. This is no longer a surrogate battlefield for a cold war but, instead, an opportunity to co-operate in a shared global vision. For too long the question has been "Why should we do this?" when instead, as a country, we should be asking: "Why aren't we doing this?"

Over the last two years I have investigated a variety of options with key personnel at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, the British National Space Centre, the European Space Agency and the National Space Biomedical Research Center. The outcome of these discussions has been encouraging, with both Nasa and the European Space Agency wishing to support a UK venture.

As a result, a new strategy has been developed, focused upon establishing a credible academic education and research programme in space medical and life sciences in the UK at University College London.

It will see the initiation of an undergraduate course, hopefully to be followed in successive years by a postgraduate programme and ultimately a multi-centre space biomedical research institute. This stepwise approach represents a departure from previous all-or-nothing strategies and aims to nucleate an effort that will gather momentum over time, raising both the profile and the political awareness of this field.