Philosophical Society of Washington

The 72nd Joseph Henry Lecture:

Biology and Humans in Space

Baruch Blumberg
1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine

2163rd Meeting Abstract
Friday, May 16, 2003 at 8:30 PM


The picture of the whole Earth taken from Apollo 17 spacecraft in December 1972, and the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth captured by Voyager I during February 1990 from beyond the orbit of Pluto and Neptune, irreversibly altered our awareness of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Earth is a beautiful, multi-textured sphere, rich with life, without visible political boundaries, in balance with its surroundings, yet vulnerable in the vastness of space. An increasing number of orbiting platforms have become available in the past two decades that allow us to see and measure aspects of nature that have never been feasible before. Space science generates a constant flow of new ideas and previously unimaginable questions.

This presentation will address two intersecting areas of biology and space. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth and in the Universe. Life in Space is a study of how biology and life react with the space environment and, ultimately, the possibility of humans surviving beyond their planet of origin. How did life begin? Are we alone in the Universe and, if so, what are the philosophical and emotional consequences of this uniqueness? What is the future of humans? What is life and how will it be recognized if encountered away from our home planet? What is the future of humans as spacefarers?

Many organic molecules, that could be the progenitors of replicating and information-containing biological molecules, fall to Earth from extraterrestrial sources. Life or its predecessors could have traveled between Earth and other locations in our solar system. Early Earth and Mars were hostile environments, with extremes of heat, cold and humidity, low in oxygen, frequently impacted by meteorites, sterilized by huge volcanic eruptions, with high and low salinity and acidity. Life may have originated and survived in geothermal sites, deep under the Earth and the sea, and in other extreme environments. There are many contemporary Earth locations that are analogues for these environments and they often contain a surprising quantity and variety of life forms.

How do fundamental biological processes - for example gene expression, DNA repair, cellular function and formation - operate in the space environment? How does space affect muscle, bone, cardiac, neurological, and psychological functions in humans and other species? How will astronauts and cosmonauts respond to the extreme demands of long periods of space travel? These questions will need to be addressed to allow humans to continue their explorations into space in near earth orbits and beyond.

Space is the great frontier for the coming century; to what extent will humans be able and want to explore it?

About the Author:

Baruch S. Blumberg is a Distinguished Scientist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and University Professor of Medicine and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. From May 1999 until October 2002, he served as Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astrobiology Institute headquartered at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. From October 2000 until October 2001, he was Senior Advisor to the Administrator of NASA based in Washington D.C. He was Master of Balliol College, Oxford University, from 1989 to 1994 and, prior to that, Associate Director for Clinical Research at Fox Chase from 1964. He was on the staff of the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, from 1957 to 1964. He earned an M.D. degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York, in 1951, and a Ph.D. (D. Phil.) in Biochemistry from Oxford University in 1957. He was an Intern and Resident at Bellevue Hospital and The Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

His research has covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics, and anthropology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976 for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases” and specifically, for the discovery of the Hepatitis B virus. In 1993, he and his co-inventor, Dr. Irving Millman, were elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their invention of the hepatitis B vaccine and the diagnostic test for hepatitis B. He has taught medical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and has been a Visiting Professor in India (Bangalore), Singapore, University of Kentucky (Lexington), Indiana University (Bloomington), the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and Stanford University in California (department of Medicine and Program in Human Biology).

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