Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 23

Submission from Dr Richard JE Skipworth


  1.  I am an Edinburgh-based surgeon with a long-standing interest in space biomedicine.

  2.  I am also Treasurer of the recently-formed UK Space Biomedicine Group (UKSBG), a scientific organisation that embodies the majority of the UK space biomedical community.

  3.  I have been interested in space exploration and space medicine for many years. I was one of the first UK nationals to undertake an elective period of study in aerospace medicine at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA.

  4.  In this submission, I would like to reiterate the points made in the UKSBG group submission namely, that the UK's lack of support of space science combined with its current policy of non-participation in human space platforms will leave us languishing behind our European and international counterparts.

  5.  I would also like to offer some more personalised views surrounding microgravity research which are pertinent to my own work experience and terrestrial research with terminal cancer patients.


  6.  There are several facts surrounding UK involvement in space exploration and these are as such:

  7.  That involvement in space programs (human and otherwise) have undoubted advantages including:

    —    knowledge collation and transfer;

    —    scientific inspiration;

    —    interdisciplinary and international teamwork;

    —    abrogation of the current "brain drain";

    —    significant beneficial impacts on terrestrial medicine;

    —    technological innovations and spin-offs (eg space blankets, CT scanners, laser and ultrasound technology to name but a tiny fraction);

    —    economic benefit; and

    —    political leadership.

  8.  At present, the UK involvement in space exploration is represented by only a small contribution to the European Space Agency's (ESA) Aurora programme.

  9.  That failure of significant UK involvement in future space programmes will leave us languishing behind our European and international counterparts in what is an expanding and increasingly competitive field.

  10.  That there is currently no formalised UK structure within the existing Research Council framework that permits allocation of funding to space science.

  11.  That UK involvement in human space science has been strongly supported by three recent high-profile reports. These include the:

    —    The Microgravity Review Panel (15 January 2003) chaired by Professor Wakeham (

    —    The Report of the Aurora Cross-Council Meeting (7 May 2004) (—Council—Report.pdf).

    —    The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Commission on the Scientific Case for Human Space Exploration (18 October 2005) chaired by Professor Close, OBE (—pdfs/Final%20Report%20 October%202005.pdf).

  12.  That some of the areas that are covered by space science and could enjoy UK involvement include:

    —  Physical sciences

    Fluid sciences, combustion and plasma physics;

    Materials sciences, including crystallisation processes;

    Astrophysics, geophysics and microgravity.

    —  Life sciences

    Human physiology and medical research;

    Biotechnology and microbiology;

    Psychological research related to long-term human space flight.

    —  Human and robotic exploration

    Lunar exploration;

    Solar system, including planetary and asteroid exploration;

    Extra-solar system exploration.

  13.  That the space environment affects human physiology in a number of unique ways and research targeted at further understanding these changes is currently the focus of space biomedical programmes worldwide, particularly with the new emphasis on exploration-class missions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA). For example, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) in the USA has identified the following twelve research areas as being of critical importance to human space exploration: bone loss; cardiovascular alterations; human performance factors, sleep and chronobiology; immunology, infection and haematology; muscle alterations and atrophy; neurobehavioural and psychosocial factors; nutrition, physical fitness, and rehabilitation; radiation effects; sensorimotor adaptation; smart medical systems; technology development; and space medicine.

  14.  That there is a very real and nascent interest and expertise in space medicine in the form of the UKSBG; this interest and expertise is not supported by current UK space policy.

  15.  That the advent of space tourism demands that research into space medicine is fully supported by UK policy to ensure safety of travellers.

  16.  That UK policy should be altered to rectify the current shortcomings and establish the UK as an international leader in space science.

  17.  That UK involvement in space science may have advantages to many more disease processes than are usually quoted. I have an academic interest in muscle wasting in cancer patients (I am currently enrolled for a Doctorate of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh), a subject very closely related to the muscle wasting experienced by humans in microgravity conditions or long-term bed rest studies (such as those run by ESA). UK involvement in research focused on this human "model" of muscle wasting would have significant terrestrial benefits for many vulnerable patient groups including cancer patients. Also, as an individual who is interested in space medicine, I am also involved in research projects examining the effect of posture change on the cardiovascular system. Studies of this sort have the potential to alter radically our understanding of human physiology, leading to wide-ranging ramifications to terrestrial medicine. In short, any of the scientific literature in space physiology is easily applicable and transferable to other disease processes.

  18.  That international involvement in space programs and space science is heavily endorsed by prominent individuals both within and outwith the space community. Examples of such include:

    "Space research plays a vital role in European science" Herbert Diehl of the German Ministry of Education and Research.

    "The International Space Station represents a unique test bed for a science programme aimed at understanding a whole range of medical problems" Dr Peter Norsk of the ESA European Users' Board.

    "Space-based Earth Observation has lead to many important developments, from the detection and understanding of the ozone hole to major advances in weather forecasting. These are results that affect European citizens every day in ways that they are probably not aware of. The Earth's climate is very complex and we now trying to look at longer term effects and changes, but as people have already said, international co-operation and better co-ordination is required." Lennart Bengtsson of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology.

    The following is a text of a message from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight and the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first United States space shuttle (UN Headquarters, New York, 11 April 2001): "The exploration of outer space has already revolutionized life on our planet in many ways. Observations from outer space have enhanced our understanding of our common environment, for example, by providing images of the ozone layer and world climate conditions. Space technology has led to advances in fields ranging from the monitoring of natural disasters to the development of navigational systems. These examples of the benefits of space technology—some immediately apparent, some much less so—provide a powerful justification for the peaceful exploration of outer space... ."

    "...Space science and technology have a great potential for enriching the lives of people around the world. Today, one can talk to people on the other side of the planet, thanks to satellite communications. One can get information on the weather in any part of the world, thanks to Earth observation satellites. Some of us no longer have to worry about getting lost on the roads, thanks to satellite navigation..."

    "...In a matter of minutes, severe disasters may destroy all the progress made over years in social and economic development. But space technologies can significantly mitigate this damage. Earth observation satellites provide essential data to give early warnings for extreme weather phenomena. People can then take timely action to minimize damages. Later, when a natural disaster hits society and destroys infrastructure, communications satellites provide means to disseminate and exchange vital information. This can help contain further damage and loss of human life..."

    "...In some parts of the world, people enjoy instant access to a vast amount of information and easy communications with their friends on the other side of the world, thanks to the Internet. At the same time, one half of the world's population has never made a telephone call. Satellite communications can help us close this gap, to help the world move forward from `digital divide' to `digital bridge...'"

    "...The use of space technologies will be part of some of the new initiatives that I announced in my Millennium Report. Communications satellites will be useful for the Health InterNetwork, to establish 10,000 on-line health information centres at hospitals and clinics in the developing world. The `First on the Ground' disaster response programme will provide mobile and satellite telephones for humanitarian relief workers to help the victims after disasters."

  19.  In summary, and without attempting to labour the point, it is imperative that the UK increases its current involvement in European Space Programs in order to benefit both the UK, by cementing its position as a world leader in the science of tomorrow, and mankind as a whole, by contributing to the acquisition of vital, potentially life-saving knowledge and technology.

October 2006

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