BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

I chose to study astrophysics at university on something of a whim, my decision being guided principally by the alphabetical arrangement of the UCCA handbook, rather than the fine structure or content of the course itself. Fortunately the department of physics and astronomy at University College London rescued me from this haphazard approach to undergraduate education. The course was to prove both fascinating and challenging in equal measure, and consolidated my interest in space exploration. However, at the end of this degree I began to turn my attention toward the practical applications of physics, and in particular its role in medicine. I briefly considered pursuing a Ph.D. in medical physics but after some soul searching realised that my skills were best suited to medicine and not physics.

I began my degree in medicine in the September of 1993, believing that this signalled the end of my career in space science. As it turned out, medicine would return me to the space programme some 5 years later. In my final year of medical school I was fortunate enough to secure an elective period at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston where I studied aerospace medicine. I returned shortly after my graduation the following year to Kennedy Space Center to observe their launch operations programme. These experiences provided me with a first-class overview of NASA life science research activities and, for the first time, presented the exciting possibility of a career pathway that would allow me to pursue my interest in both space science and medicine.

The challenge, however, was to be able to pursue this career without having to exchange citizenship in the process. Upon returning to the UK, I contacted the British National Space Centre (BNSC) to investigate UK careers in space life science. It was a short conversation: There simply was no such programme in this country. Further enquiries uncovered a rather bleak picture. Since the mid-1980s, human space flight has been regarded as "not being in the strategic interests of the UK" and the accompanying policy decisions of the Thatcher Government have since excluded us from all such activities. Space life and medical science were seen as an integral part of this programme and effectively fell under the same axe.

However, with the advent of the International Space Station, developments in the international space science research programmes, and growing evidence of interest within the UK life science community, a reassessment seemed appropriate. So in 1997, at the same time as taking up my first junior doctor's post, I sat down with a blank sheet of paper to attempt to develop a feasible strategy for the establishment of a UK space biomedical research capability. It was necessary, in the first instance, to demonstrate that such a programme could be academically credible, logistically feasible, and economically viable. Contrary to popular belief, the relevant interest and expertise are both in plentiful supply in this country; what is lacking is a focus for the community and some semblance of infrastructure.

To tackle these issues, in December 1999 a conference for UK life science academics interested in utilising space as a potential research tool was held at University College London (UCL). This was a major undertaking, only made possible by the support of the events team at UCL and BNSC and the superhuman efforts of a handful of fellow enthusiasts. There were in the end 152 attendees, with the European Space Agency, NASA, the U.S. National Space Biomedical Research Institute, and BNSC all providing senior delegates. At this meeting a three-phase, bottom-up strategy for the development of a UK space life and medical sciences research and education programme was proposed and adopted. An international steering committee was also created to guarantee perpetuation and continuity.

Throughout this effort the international space agencies have provided a high level of support. There are of course political motives underlying some of this enthusiasm, but for the most part the assistance received has been fuelled by a genuine sense that the international community would prefer to further UK involvement in this global initiative rather than to leave us behind.

Times have changed and what may have been true of the space programme 30 years ago is not the case today. Where we once did little more than monitor the vital signs of single astronauts on short-duration flights, we are now able to investigate the molecular basis for the physiological adaptations that accompany time spent in microgravity environments. Our studies of astronaut health have provided unique insight into terrestrial disease processes and have yielded cutting-edge solutions for everyday health care. Microgravity provides a unique laboratory for the investigation of biological processes.

At the level of microbiology, it appears increasingly likely that organisms might be capable of surviving the physical extremes of some nonterrestrial environments. This offers intriguing possibilities and, while the chances of discovering living organisms within the confines of our solar system is fantastically remote, the possibility of finding relic life within our immediate neighbourhood remains.

There is real science to be done here and there are real opportunities to grasp. The number of people who have flown in space can now be counted in hundreds and the duration of these missions measured in months. Our advances in the field of astronautics have, necessarily, been paralleled by advances in our understanding of the effect of the space environment upon life and the nature of life in space.

Space life science is a fledgling discipline that boasts barely enough critical mass to survive in the cutthroat world of research council grant application. But it is all the more attractive to young scientists for it. Its literature base has sufficient scope and scientific rigour to be challenging, but not so much volume as to appear insurmountable. Almost any question you could care to ask about biomedicine in the space environment has yet to be answered satisfactorily, and hence it is a field in which the ideas of new investigators are a valid and essential currency. If you will forgive the pun: Space biomedicine isn't rocket science. At least not yet.

We have come a long way in the past 4 years. There now exists a basic UK space life sciences infrastructure with an established steering committee and solid links with the international space agencies. We are in the process of creating a virtual community of UK space life scientists through Web resources and this year, for the first time, an undergraduate course in space medicine and physiology ran at UCL. It is intended that this course should represent the nucleus event of a wider strategic effort and we hope in coming years to develop a corresponding master's degree programme.

It has not, by any means, been plain sailing. I am uncertain of where these ventures will lead or indeed if our government will find the vision to capitalise upon this unique but ephemeral opportunity. I am however certain of this: We have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, that space life science has the potential to yield tangible and lasting benefits and that it is indeed in the UK's strategic interests.

It is an unconventional way to navigate a research career pathway. I myself barely understand how I come to be at this point under these circumstances at this time. I currently divide my time between my endeavours in space life science, my work as a junior doctor, and my quest for a 25-hour day. I am as uncertain of where I will be in 10 years time as I was 10 years ago. But experience has taught me not to attempt to predict the future.