Why do we, as a species, continue to ask questions, push boundaries and explore the unknown? Well, innately, we're curious about our environs. We're programmed to always think: "What if?" "What if we could split the atom?" "What if we could build a plane?" "What if we could put someone on the moon?"
Like the early-day explorers in search of new trade routes, the space program is discovering new worlds in other solar systems and getting close to being able to live on other planets. We've been to the moon once, it's another thing entirely to stay and live there and on Mars. Humankind's next best destiny is to explore these celestial bodies and live on them.
Exploring forces us to stretch and expand our understanding of things. When we go to a potentially dangerous environment, we need to identify the hazards, what infuences those hazards and figure out how to control them. When we go into space, humans lose bone density, muscle and our hearts may become weak, our balance organs become altered.
To enable such exploration, we have to perform research, create the hardware and procedures to control the hazards of a particular space mission. For example, the bone loss an astronaut can suffer in space might lead to fractured bones or kidney stones. Our challenge is to find different ways to load the bone and develop exercises to prevent fractures and weakness. Before we send people to Mars, we'd better make sure these hazards are controlled because we don't want astronauts to suffer from kidneys stones on Mars, nor return with bones so brittle they may break even years after the mission.
The day the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003, I was on the console at mission control and I lost some good friends. It taught me a lot about how frail humans are and that sense is magnifed when you look at the International Space Station. It's a $100-billion vehicle built by some of the smartest minds representing many nations. Yet even now, with our six-person crew there, those folks can't live for more than a couple months without being visited by a cargo spaceship to deliver supplies. It takes a massive amount of technology to ensure the safety and well-being of six people in orbit.
Replicating an environment similar to Earth's for only six people is far from simple and I feel that we, as a group of sentient beings, may at times take for granted what mother nature provides to us every day.
I've 'explored' throughout my career by starting in engineering and winding up in space medicine. As a NASA flight surgeon, I'm supporting another explorer, my fellow Canadian and U of C alumnus, astronaut Bob Thirsk. Hopefully what we learn from Bob's mission will help Canada prepare for future, even more ambitious missions.
Exploring broadens our horizons and forces us to gain a better understanding of our world and hopefully many others. It's time to leave our planet and explore!