Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 60

Submission from Dr Patrick Magee


  1.  While it is true that the presence of humans in space started as an expression of military and political competition between two post WW2 superpowers, the development of robotic and human space exploration in the early 21st century has matured well beyond that. It now forms an integral part of man's curiosity about himself and his place in the universe. There are currently a much larger number of countries, frequently working in co-operative groups, which are actively engaged in space exploration, which increasingly involve a human presence. Under the umbrella of ESA, Europe has become a major participant in the exploration of space of the current era. The "Aurora" programme of planetary exploration (starting with the Moon) which is being developed by ESA, starts with robotic exploration, in which UK is an active participant. However it will necessarily move to a programme of human involvement, in which the UK is currently a non-participant. While it is recognised that robotic space exploration is much more cost effective than human involvement, the level of commitment to "Aurora" means that sooner rather than later, a European human presence in space will become inevitable. Meaningful exploration of extreme environments, such as the North and South Poles, the ocean depths and the highest mountains, has involved humans, not exclusively robots. At the proposed level of space exploration, humans will become a necessity, not a luxury. It will require a great deal of scientific and technological planning to ensure the success of human involvement. The UK has uncharacteristically managed to exclude itself and its scientific community almost entirely from such plans to date, which seems extraordinarily perverse considering the UK's economic, scientific, medical and technological standing in the world.

  2.  Given the expense of supporting humans in space, it would be unreasonable to expect UK taxpayers' support without there being some prospect of enhancing the UK's economic, scientific, medical and technological standing. Justification of the huge US expenditure on sending humans to the Moon in 1969 included the invention of Teflon, which today sounds absurd, given that the rationale was the assurance of Cold War victory. However, such commitment also resulted in driving forward microelectronic and communications research and development at a much faster rate and to a vastly greater extent than anyone could have imagined in the 1950's. No-one can argue that such development has not had a huge impact on the lives of everyone on the planet in the current era, and helped other scientific and economic development of many countries.

  3.  Because of the necessity for economic reasons for international cooperation, research and development for supporting humans in space will therefore drive other fields of endeavour in a way that will in the long-term appear justifiable. In fact failure to be an early stakeholder in such development will seem foolhardy, given that others will be the greater beneficiaries eg China, Japan, US, Canada, Russia, Germany, France, Italy. Because the author's professional experience is in medicine and technology, examples of benefits to UK in these fields will follow.

  4.  The UK is already a world leader in the technology for supporting humans in extreme environments such as aerospace and underwater, eg Qinetiq. Direct UK involvement in ESA's human programme will give a huge impetus to further economic and technological development opportunities. Such technology is directly related to environmental control, which is becoming increasingly relevant to our own planet's very survivability. Such development can also be applied to an increasingly adventurous and wealthy population who want to explore extreme environments for themselves, eg the popularity of sports diving, the imminent arrival of space tourism thanks to Virgin Galactic. While the earliest beneficiaries of such activities are necessarily the richest, such opportunities eventually spread further and wider than we can envisage.

  5.  The need for humans to communicate with each other, even when in extreme environments means that the communications development industry will be encouraged to come up with novel solutions to communication across distances which now seem unimaginable, eg the radio signal delay to Mars is 20 minutes; effective communication will require the development of communication protocols to ensure survival. Such development will benefit communication protocols much closer to home.

  6.  The required development of medical science to ensure human survivability will enhance medical development at home. For example, there is a need for a greater understanding of human protection from radiation hazards inherent in human space travel, and how to protect humans from these environments. Such development will aid the understanding of radiation induced cancers such as skin, blood and bone marrow cancers; this is relevant in the current context of naturally and malevolently induced environmental changes which expose earthbound humans to such dangers and how to protect individuals and populations.

  7.  A major problem with humans in space is the bone and muscle wasting which occurs in microgravity. Research into the mechanisms of these conditions is relevant to an increasingly ageing and sedentary population, as are the exercise regimes to minimise or prevent such disuse atrophy.

  8.  The provision of adequate medical support in an extreme environment is relevant to such support in earthbound isolated environments. This applies to the domains of pharmaceuticals, biomedical technology, non-expert protocols and medical expertise itself. Given the increasing proportion of GDP which healthcare budgets are consuming in all countries, such development should be welcome.

  9.  Such developments will allow mankind to answer fundamental questions about himself, as well as contribute to Earthbound human development as described above. Crucially, such involvement will encourage a wealth of knowledge transfer across boundaries of scientific and industrial expertise in ways hitherto unimaginable. This would help to attenuate and even reverse the current detachment from science by schoolchildren, eg the diminishing number of "A" level candidates in Chemistry and Physics. Such knowledge transfer will reap economic benefit for the UK in generations to come.

  10.  A significant proportion of doctors of the UK Space Medical Association are anaesthetists. The President of the Royal College of Anaesthetists has given the College's support to the views expressed by this author and other anaesthetists.

October 2006

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