Since Yuri Gagarin’s brief but momentous voyage beyond the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere and the emblematic, breath-taking scenes of men walking on the moon, several hundred human beings have experienced first-hand what it is like to venture into space. In a few short decades, space has moved from the realm of fantasy into science fact, and is proving to be as awe-inspiring and rich with potential as anything imagined by science fiction.
Men and women are living and working in space, often for months at a stretch, circling the globe at 400 kilometres above our heads, in the fabulous project that is the International Space Station (ISS). An uplifting example of international co-operation and ambition on an unprecedented scale, the ISS not only provides scope for advances in space technology and engineering, but it affords a unique tool for all kinds of scientific research the benefits of which for humankind can only at this time begin to be glimpsed.
Experiments conducted under conditions of weightlessness open up a whole new vista of research possibilities, revealing phenomena which are masked by the effects of gravity on Earth. Even in the couple of years since the ISS began functioning as a research facility, result are already making a positive impact.
For instance, in space proteins, which seem to play a major role in health and disease, can be grown in crystal form and thus ‘decoded’ to help design more effective, robust medicines; microgravity encourages longer-lived cell cultures, which are aiding understanding of how tumours develop and how to tackle them. And since the human body is affected by microgravity, the astronauts themselves are (willing) guinea-pigs, contributing to preparing a solid, secure knowledge foundation for eventual longer manned missions further afield. The European Space Agency’s Aurora programme envisages once again putting human beings on the moon, and, around 2030, sending ambassadors of our species to Mars …