NASA astronaut and physiologist James Pawelczyk will this week seek to address one of the profound questions vexing scientists and blocking our progress to colonize other planets: Does our human biology require Earth's gravity to survive?
All life we know evolved with Earth gravity. With plans for the first human base on the Moon in the next decade, and a Moon to Mars program to follow, we face the question of whether humans can adapt to gravitational forces different from Earth's.
The Artemis Program, announced by NASA earlier this year, will place the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface in 2024, as a stepping stone to the future exploration of Mars. With its relative proximity to Earth and a gravitational field only 1/6 that of Earth's, the lunar surface is the perfect location for laboratories to research the impact of living with different gravity. In less than 10 years, women and men will live on the Moon for months at a time.
A sustained presence on the Moon means that breeding colonies of animals such as rodents can be established. This will enable biologists and physiologists their first opportunity to determine whether mammals can successfully adapt and evolve to different gravitational conditions over generations. A comparable "life cycle" experiment was first completed on the space station Mir with plants more than 20 years ago, but has never been attempted with mammals.
Pawelczyk will be delivering The Physiological Society's President's Lecture on Saturday 7 September at the Royal Institution in London.
Ahead of his lecture, NASA astronaut and physiologist James Pawelczyk, said:
"We are approaching a defining moment for humankind. Mars is the most audacious destination humans have ever contemplated and in the next decade we aim to develop the skills and techniques for planetary exploration. This is a huge advancement for our civilization. And, what we learn about human adaptation in space can help us understand more about health and disease here on Earth.
"Mars is within reach but first we need to answer one of the most profound questions still vexing scientists: do humans need Earth gravity to survive?
"For years we have been restricted to low Earth orbit, but with plans to return to the Moon in 2024 we will begin answering this question.
"We are returning to the Moon as a stepping stone to the future exploration of Mars. This is heady stuff. If it seems more fantasy than fact, please know that the rocket is now being assembled in Louisiana for the first Artemis mission next year.
"Determining if mammals can reproduce successfully on the Moon will set the stage for sustainable colonization of the planets, another step for humankind that will inspire ours and future generations."