Why Giving Matters


February 4, 2019

Christopher Patterson pictured during his internship at NASA with a Mars Rover (photo: Arno Rogg)

by Linda Sutherland

Although he hasn’t travelled into space – yet – Christopher Patterson has experienced some of the conditions that astronauts are likely to encounter on a mission to Mars.

During a summer internship in California’s Lava Beds National Monument, Patterson, a second- year student in Bioresource Engineering at McGill’s Macdonald Campus, worked as a Research Assistant for ATiLT (Astrobiology Training in Lava Tubes). This McGill research initiative, led by Richard Léveillé, a Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is funded by the Canadian Space Agency’s FAST (Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology) program.

Scientists believe that the Earth’s lava tubes – caves and tunnels formed by volcanic lava flows – provide a realistic simulation of conditions that future colonists to Mars could encounter. As sub-surface environments, these formations offer protection from surface radiation and other harsh environmental conditions, and often host a diverse array of microbial organisms and mineral deposits.

“By studying naturally protective formations like lava tubes and other potentially habitable locations, I have become aware of the incredible opportunities that lie beyond our world not only for myself, but for humanity as a whole,” says Patterson.

Much of his time was spent planning a mission to the Red Planet. He catalogued dozens of potential landing sites and created software models that allow scientists to visualize the selected sites in 3D, and perform simulations to get a better idea of what they could find, should a spacecraft be sent to investigate.

The experience energized his passion for space exploration. “If we keep up the current pace of technological development and sustain public interest in space flight, we may very soon be able to look up at the Moon and see lights from our colonies shining back down on us. I am excited to be a part of that.”

Patterson’s participation in the ATiLT project was made possible by funding from the Bieler Family Internship Program. Established in 2009 by McGill alumnus Marc Bieler, DipAgr’58, BA’64, the program gives students in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences access to real-life work experiences.

The four weeks spent living and working in the Mojave Desert brought Patterson closer to his ultimate goal: to develop technology that may be used to support human exploration and colonization of space.

The experience also fuelled an even bigger dream: to travel into space.

“In my wildest dreams, I hope to one day become one of those few selected to become astronauts and travel to places like the Moon and Mars, so that I may set up these colonial outposts myself.”

Patterson recognizes that the experiences he gained through his internship could help transform this dream into reality.

“By studying other worlds and mixing planetary science and mission planning with the specialized engineering training that I’m receiving at McGill, I become one of very few people with experience in both detecting habitable locations on other worlds, and with the ability to engineer systems to live within them.”

Patterson, who has had “an obsession with everything to do with space for as long as I can remember” is immensely grateful for the opportunities his internship provided.

“Support from people like Mr. Bieler provides students like me with life-changing opportunities that will no doubt shape our careers and our lives. I hope that he is as excited as we are to see what we can accomplish.”

Learn more about the Bieler Family Internship Program at McGill