07 August 2012

The Medical Case for Mars

I'm a Clinical Geneticist. That's a doctor who works in genetic medicine, dealing mainly with lthe diagnosis and management of patients with rare disorders and birth defects. Many of them have conditions you'll never have heard of, and often I'll never have heard of them either until they pitch up in my clinic.

The recent NASA triumph of landing the Curiosity Rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, on the surface of Mars cost $2.5 billion, and many people have remarked upon what could be done in the field of medicine with that sort of money. Actually, it's not that far off what we used to sequence the entire human genome at the end of the last century, and that has kicked off a spectacular revolution in genetic medicine that we're still only scratching the surface of. Think about what we could do if that was diverted into genetic research!

And yet NASA have used all this money to build a rover and send it to another planet. How will this benefit my patients? Isn't it a spectacular waste of money? And what about all those people starving in Africa, or who could be cured or relatively simple diseases, if only we had $2.5 billion to spend on them?

You might therefore be surprised to find me, a doctor who doesn't deal with astronauts or fighter pilots (usually) or extremes of temperature or pressure or endurance, who treats people, not rocks or gullies or ice or asteroids, saying in no uncertain terms that we should push out beyond the bounds of our small planet, and explore the vastness of space.

Yet that is precisely what I will argue. Indeed, I feel very strongly that we should be pushing to land people on Mars, and establish colonies there and elsewhere in the Solar System. We should be putting money into space technology, and stretching the challenges we give our space agencies and their commercial partners.

I will freely admit that part of my motivation stems from the fact that when I was a little boy I had posters of all the Apollo astronauts over my bedroom walls. I was thrilled and inspired by the derring do of the Skylab and Salyut crews, and the probes we sent to other planets and out to Jupiter and beyond. I voraciously read science fiction and imagined what it would be like to sail among the stars, discovering new worlds and new life. I dreamt of giant orbital space colonies, containing thousands of people, drifting on the solar wind out to the moons of Saturn. In my mind's eye I gazed down at the Earth from the craters of the Moon. And that is all very well for a little boy, but here on Earth we have real problems to deal with, and as a doctor I have real patients with very real medical needs.

However, when I look at my patients, I see many of them who would not be alive, were it not for technology either directly or indirectly linked to one of Humankind's Great Projects. The Space Race drove rapid miniaturisation of electrical components, which has totally revolutionised investigative medicine. From endoscopes to imaging technology, many modalities that we take for granted would not have been developed (or at least not developed to the stage where I can access them for my patients in Belfast), had it not been for space. Techniques that we use for monitoring patients in surgery or intensive care were developed and refined by the need to use them in space to monitor astronauts. Image analysis algorithms used to investigate other planets (and our own from orbit) are now used to analyse scans on patients. Lightweight cheap disposable sensors are routinely used in hospital patients to monitor oxygen levels and other biological parameters, and are a direct spin-off, at least in production terms, of technologies that were developed alongside the space programmes.

And that's not even beginning to get to the massive benefits space technology has had in terms of monitoring and understanding our planet and putting people in touch with each other, allowing rapid sharing of information and research. The fact that we can feed 7 billion people is due in a large extent to our understanding and modelling of our planet from orbit. The fact that we don't feed 7 billion people adequately is down to all the bad things about human nature that space has the potential to lift us above.

In human history there are two major drivers of rapid technological advance. The first is War. The second is a Great Project. If we are to maintain peace on our fragile planet, I fervently hope that the second option is the one we choose to impel our civilisation onwards. If we choose to go to Mars - not because it is easy, to channel JFK, but because it is hard, we will be setting ourselves a tremendous challenge. A challenge to develop technologies to move people vast distances safely, to monitor humans, plants, animals and ecosystems in conditions that are very unfamiliar, to shrink scientific equipment, sensors and other items as much as possible, to learn much much more about human physiology and psychology, and perhaps even to value our beautiful blue planet that bit more, that we may take better care of it. As NASA showed with the Curiosity lander, if we set ourselves a challenge, and rise to it, we can achieve truly wonderful things.

As I look at some of my little patients, who are only alive because we have the spin-off technology to fix their heart defects or their diaphragmatic hernias, or because we were able to monitor them better in the womb, or because our supercomputers were able to analyse their scans, or because we were able to consult in real time with experts on the other side of the planet - as I see those kids, I don't begrudge NASA their $2.5 billion. The technology that put that lander on Mars is going to help people in the future. I can't foresee exactly how, but I know it will. And similarly, an effort by Humanity to reach out beyond our planet and colonise other worlds will yield benefits back here on our Pale Blue Dot.

And do you know what? Many of my little patients have posters of astronauts on their walls too, and they also have dreams of life among the stars.


  1. This hits the nail firmly on the head. This is echoed in Neil DeGrasse Tyson's book "The Space Chronicles", the "cross pollination" of scientific discovery pays dividends when we attempt great projects.

    I was recently amazed to discover the software used to extract details from Hubble's out of focus images, before the lens correction, is now used to detect the early stages of breast cancer in mammograms.

  2. Well said. We NEED those colonies in space. It will be our source of materials when we run out on Earth and a genetic pool from which we can re-populate the Earth when the next ELE occurs.

  3. "In human history there are two major drivers of rapid technological advance. The first is War. The second is a Great Project."

    Wouldn't it be great though if the Great Project was taking care of humans, not colonising the solar system because we screwed up here? Why couldn't the push for better electronics have come from wanting to make the lives of people better rather than exploring other planets?

    Maybe I am just a bit jaded from suffering along with my son, from Ehlers Danlos III. We don't have any support here, no specialist physiotherapy, no genetic testing, my son's teenage years are passing in a blur of pain and brain fog.

    Funnily enough, he doesn't want to be an astronaut, and has no interest in the Mars landing.