Survival in Space: An Interview With Astrobiologist Charles Cockell (Part 2)

Status Report From: Astrobiology Magazine
Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006


Simon Mitton, a fellow of Saint Edmunds College at the University of Cambridge, recently sat down with Charles Cockell, geomicrobiology professor at the Open University in the UK. In part two of their interview, Cockell discusses the reasons for studying microbes in space. He also explains why humans must someday face those conditions as well, as we expand outwards into the solar system and beyond.

Simon Mitton (SM): You've participated in proposals or perhaps experiments for the International Space Station to investigate the survivability of some microorganisms. What's that work all about?

Charles Cockell (CC): If you want to search for life elsewhere, or eventually send humans to other places, you need to go into space. Space is the ultimate field site. Unfortunately, it's not easy for us to go into space as individual researchers, although hopefully that will change as time goes on. In the meantime, we try to send our experiments into space. And we do that by forming connections with the European Space Agency and NASA and other programs that have access to the International Space Station.

What I'm doing, in common with many other European scientists, is to select various organisms that can survive extreme conditions, and to send them into Earth orbit to see how they respond to the conditions of space. We're interested in the survival of microbes in extreme space conditions from a planetary protection point of view. If we land on these other planets, either as robots or as humans, and they have microorganisms on them -- as they have done on many of the probes we've already sent -- will they survive on these other planetary surfaces, or how quickly will they die? We're also interested to know whether microbes could survive traveling from one planet to another on meteorites. Is it possible that in the early history of the solar system, life was exchanged between the planets? And of course, we're interested generally in the survival of microbes in extreme conditions, and the space environment is a very extreme environment - extremes of ultraviolet radiation, extremes of cold and vacuum. So there's a whole range of reasons why we want to send microbes into Earth orbit and see what happens to them.

SM: What is your attitude towards future manned space flight programs? Should they be developed with the objective of making more use of the Space Station, having some kind of base on the moon, and then eventually having a mission to Mars? That touches not just upon the ambitions of NASA, but also on Europe's Aurora program, which may involve manned space flight. Is it important to have human beings in these situations because of the fantastic observational power of the human mind, and also our ability to be able to deal with unusual situations? Or should we develop machines to do everything? With nanotechnology, we will miniaturize things even further, and could shower thousands of robots onto Mars and let them do all the scientific exploration.

CC: You can look at this from two points of view. You can look at it from the engineering point of view, which is, do you send humans into space because they're good at pattern recognition, they can mend space craft and they can do all of these things that are necessary for a space mission to be successful? I think humans do have a role to play in this. The other way you can look at it is from the point of view of human civilization. Where we're going, and what we are as a species, and what we plan to do with our future, these are fundamental questions that are wrapped up in space exploration.

We've colonized a planet already. We're already involved in colonizing the surface of Earth and looking after its life support system, and using resources to build machines to allow us to live on Earth successfully. So what's so different about colonizing other places? In some sense, each one of us is already engaged in the process of human space flight, it just happens to be on the planet on which we've evolved.

Now, we can decide to stay here on Earth and go nowhere else, and wait until the sun turns into a Red Giant, and then we will be extinguished. That's a perfectly legitimate choice for humanity. Or we can build spacecraft to go and explore the endless resources of the universe, to explore new planets and maybe meet other intelligent civilizations. Some people might regard that as a little bit Star Trek in speculation, but it's a real possibility. Even if there are no other civilizations, we as a species can make it part of the purpose of our existence to explore and expand our knowledge and understanding of the universe.

I think many people believe that the future of humanity is to stay on the Earth and live out our lives here. They are happy to stay at home and not go out exploring. In fact, it would probably be a catastrophe if the whole of humanity suddenly wanted to leave their homes and explore new frontiers. So it's probably a good thing that only a minority of humanity wants to explore. But that minority has to win, ultimately, because otherwise civilizations wither and die. This is one of the few instances in a democracy where the minority viewpoint must prevail over the majority.

The good thing about the rest of the solar system is that there are no indigenous people. There may be indigenous microbes, but there are no indigenous civilizations to exploit and exterminate. So in some sense it's a very morally pure form of exploration to spread out across the solar system and eventually the rest of the galaxy, although we may eventually meet other intelligent civilizations. I think it's an exceptional opportunity for us to explore the planets in the solar system and establish civilizations on Mars and elsewhere. We can argue until the end of time about whether it's economically viable, whether it's technically a good thing to do, but it misses the point, which is that it is a good thing for our species to explore. We can not just stay on Earth and eventually wither away when we run out of resources. We have to go into space and establish new civilizations. It's a question of when, not whether it happens.

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