Here at Panacea we’re unashamedly nerdy. We love all things tech and we’re not afraid to admit it. As long as there are no 80s-style bullies around, we’re quite happy to talk geek all day – especially when it comes to the future of vet work.
It’s still only the dawn of the human technological age, but the pace of technical revolution is growing more and more rapidly every year. Technologies that have the potential to improve our lives, and those of our beloved pets, aren’t just in the future anymore. They’re right here, right now.
As an example, space travel is set to become commonplace in the next few decades. Although civilian space travel is currently only the domain of the very, very wealthy, by the 2040s the rest of us may be able to travel by rocket on the regular.
With this in mind, you can imagine our surprise and delight when one of our Australian-based customers asked us recently, ‘So, do you reckon we’ll need vets in space?’
What a fascinating question!
For vets to be required in space we will, of course, need animals. So let’s look at some of the reasons we’d want to take animals into space – including to the Moon, Mars and beyond – and how that may influence the future of veterinary clinics and animal care.
Since the earliest days of their space programs, countries such as the USA and Russia have used animals as proverbial guinea pigs, primarily to test whether the rockets they’re building are suitable for sustaining human life. Thankfully these days have passed, and we no longer fire terrified monkeys, dogs and other mammals into the heavens to see if we can get them back to earth in one piece.
Nowadays, research using animals is performed to determine how biological functions operate in space and typically uses insects, reptiles and rodents. These experiments are expected to continue for the foreseeable future, but it’s fair to assume that they will also remain small, self-contained and highly monitored by astronauts, vets and scientists from the ground.
It’s unlikely that we’ll be conducting research on anything even close to an agricultural/ commercial scale any time soon (for the reasons set out below), so we don’t think it’s likely that vets will be required to support research in space for now.
Today’s astronauts rely on food, water, oxygen and fuel from Earth while in space.
As we establish more and more outposts in the heavens, it will be too expensive to keep transporting resources solely from Earth. When we colonise space, we will need to develop the technology to grow our own food there.
For animals of any kind to live away from the surface of the Earth, we will require pressurised environments. Without a pressurised life support system even the most hardy of animals would die within moments on the moon or on Mars.
Pressurised volume is expensive and it’s very unlikely that we’ll have the ability or the desire to build pressurised environments large enough for such resource-inefficient practices as agriculture and aquaculture – for a while, at least.
Over time, we’ll develop the technologies to build larger and larger pressurised environments on the Moon and on Mars, likely using 3D printing, underground structures and a variety of technologies yet to be imagined.
Even as the size of these environments increases, it’s unlikely that farming animals will be a priority for the foreseeable future, particularly as animals would compete with humans for exceedingly scarce resources, such as oxygen and water.
Although it’s likely that there will be an interplanetary requirement for vets in agriculture and aquaculture in the distant future, we estimate that it’s unlikely to be within our lifetimes.
Space is a hostile, barren place. The human body has to contend with increased levels of radiation, the effects of weightlessness/low gravity and of living within closed/somewhat hostile environments.
For the human mind, things can be even more difficult as everyone travelling into space has to come to terms with the dangers of space travel, as well the difficulties of living in isolated, confined spaces a long way away from friends, families and support systems.
Indeed, one of the major technological challenges facing humans wanting to colonise Mars and the Moon is how do we keep people sane in the process? Travelling to and living on Mars will constitute a test of mental endurance unprecedented in the history of spaceflight. Mental illness is not only a significant threat to the sufferer in space but, due to the potentially catastrophic effects of unpredictable behaviour, to all in their immediate vicinity.
Even if we select astronauts with the psychological resilience to make what, for many, will be a one-way trip to Mars, how will their offspring fare? Will they grow up grateful or resentful to be part of humankind’s expansion across the solar system?
These are very real challenges and, although this is purely speculation at this stage, we think there’s a strong chance that companion animals will be taken with us to the Moon, Mars and beyond relatively early in the colonisation of these celestial bodies. Our guess (and it really is a guess) is that this could see companion animals on Mars within 30 years. The gravity on the surface of Mars is about 38% of that on Earth. On the Moon it’s about 17%. Whether it would ever be practical or humane to have pets on the Moon is uncertain, but we think it’s unlikely.
As the number of humans and pets grows on Mars, so too will the need for veterinarians, so it follows that it’s likely to be just a matter of time before we have vets on Mars; and our guess is that it will be within the next 30 years. What animals we decide to take with us is also another interesting question, as we’d need animal companions who are likely to want to be there (i.e. those who would enjoy the habitat) and that wouldn’t require too much air, food and water to survive.
What do you think? Do you fancy the idea of practicing on Mars?
Cover image by Nicolas Lobos via Unsplash.