Do you ever feel like you’re running downhill, legs pumping, adrenaline rushing through your body, mouth stretched in a grin of elation? As your speed increases, and that sense of not being in control transforms excitement into a heady sense of terror—do you want to stop, nurse bruised knees and scraped elbows, and think about taking the long route round next time; or do you want to push ahead and see if you can fly?
As science fact rushes to catch up with the coat-tails of science fiction, we can all hold our breath, heart pounding, as one leap forward after another takes us closer to the brink of true flight into the unknown.
The successful test-flights of the SpaceX Grasshopper rocket wedges open the door to cost-effective ground-to-space-station transport; and from there, where next? The planet Mars is on everyone’s lips, but it’s a big and very tempting solar system out there. The changing economic environment—the scaling down of costs and the scaling up of scarcity—provides the impetus for companies like SpaceX and Planetary Resources to plough significant investment into the practicalities of harvesting off-world resources.
While the near-sighted bicker about rights to the Moon and its possible bounty, others have a longer-term strategy and—watch out NASA—a longer reach. The breath-stopping prospects of the 3-D printer will see it spitting out replacement parts for equipment, allowing long-term maintenance of ships on system spanning journeys. Recent research is pushing boundaries into the ‘printing’ of foodstuffs, so our intrepid voyagers will be able to store more than enough provisions—reconstituted pizza anyone?
The next question is: can the rather fragile human body keep up with the virulent promiscuity of the human intellect? It’s time for genetics to take centre stage and examine the suitability of the body itself for space flight. Astronauts returning from extended periods in space have exhibited physical symptoms such as bone-loss, back pain, deterioration in vision, and an increased chance of cancer due to exposure to cosmic radiation.
All astronauts now have regular brain scans before and after missions, to detect anomalies and build an effective picture of the effects of space flight on the human body. Efforts are being made to assess the risks for individual astronauts before sending them into space. Personalised medicine—tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup—will mean that only the most relevant and effective medicines for a particular crew will be packed. It will also make possible preventative and proactive treatment of inherent conditions that may put an astronaut at risk.
And the next step? Well, a new IVF procedure that can screen out genetically abnormal embryos has produced its first health baby. IVF currently provides a very limited scope for selecting desirable genetic traits… but, remember that sensation of running downhill? In the best tradition of science fiction, perhaps the next generation of astronauts will literally be born to visit the stars.