A bioengineered future in deep spaceS

NASA's Human Research Program is all about risk reduction, finding ways to counter fatigue and mitigate radiation damage, among other potential issues in space travel. But what if a different kind of program had evolved?

After all, back in the 1960s the agency was looking into the much broader question of how a human being might be adapted for space. The notion grew out of a 1960 article by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline called "Cyborgs and Space," suggesting that re-creating the environment of Earth aboard a space vehicle was not as useful an option as adapting a human being at least partly to the conditions he or she would face.

The idea was a bold one in its day. From the paper (the italics are in the original):

The task of adapting man's body to any environment he may choose will be made easier by increased knowledge of homeostatic functioning, the cybernetic aspects of which are just beginning to be understood and investigated. In the past evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable biochemical, physiological and electronic modification of man's existing modus vivendi.

Altering Physiology to Suit Space

Thus the concept of altering human biology (and, doubtless, psychology) to adapt to this truly extreme environment. It's one that NASA historian Roger Launius (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) looks into in a recent magazine article, pointing to his own use of medical equipment to sustain his existence as an example of one such transformation. Is Launius a cyborg? He calls himself one, perhaps partly in jest, but certainly to make the point that while humans cannot survive in space for more than a minute and a half without major help, deep space missions are going to require adaptations that help us weather the long voyage.

This Astrobiology Magazine article gets into the debate, noting Stephen Hawking's belief that the long-term future of the human species is in space. Assuming we find one way or another to reach nearby stars, colonizing any terrestrial planets there will make huge demands:

If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the "next state of human evolution" to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn't really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs-a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts-or in simpler terms, part human, part machine.

And Launius himself points to the large number of people with uncontroversial tweaks such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants whom we pass on the street every day. How many people are, in fact, alive precisely because of technological interventions they carry about in their bodies? The notion of the cyborg, then, shouldn't really be quite as daunting as it appears, but my guess is that public reaction to a human being altered almost beyond recognition so as to allow survival in an alien biosphere would be considerably different. Such a being calls up ethical questions that make us think not so much of 2001: A Space Odyssey but Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Bioengineering: A Step Too Far?

It was the Clynes and Kline paper that originally coined the term ‘cyborg,' and NASA's ‘The Cyborg Study: Engineering Man for Space' followed in 1963, discussing issues like organ replacement and hibernation for deep space journeys before concluding that the technologies required were out of reach at the time. Poking around the Net on this issue, though, I came across an earlier article on the Astrobiology Magazine site looking at implementation:

The development of artificial organs is not too far advanced from what was available when NASA commissioned its cyborg study. Although artificial hearts and lungs are now more compact and better at the jobs they were designed for, they are used mainly as temporary replacements to help patients survive until appropriate donor organs become available. Artificial kidneys – dialysis machines – have posed the greatest challenge, partly due to the need to filter large amounts of fluid. In the 60s, artificial kidneys were the size of a refrigerator.

We have a long way to go, in other words, before we can achieve the kind of bioengineering that this kind of adaptation would demand. But the work continues, and accelerates:

Today, the smallest devices are still not implantable, but a recent prototype can be worn as an extremely bulky utility belt. Artificial bones, blood, skin, eyes, and even noses are now all being developed, and each could conceivably help man cope with the conditions of space. So long as the resulting entity still had a human brain, it could be considered a cyborg rather than an android (a robot that looks like a human).

Ethics of the Cyborg

From an ethical perspective, we also have to weigh the advantages of cyborg-style bioengineering against other possibilities. Assuming we eventually find and travel to a planet that could sustain human life (and assume as well that no sentient species lives there), which would be the superior moral choice: 1) Terraforming the entire world so as to suit our kind of life; or 2) Bioengineering our colonists so that they adapt to the environment they find themselves in?

The question may be resolved in a different way. It's always possible that interstellar travel will prove so treacherous and lengthy for biological beings that our expansion into the galaxy will be managed by artificial intelligence. Paul Davies' book The Eerie Silence again comes to mind: "I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe. If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature."

I can't close this without mention of Freeman Dyson's notions on the subject, as found in Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 234:

In the long run, the only solution that I see to the problem of diversity is the expansion of mankind into the universe by means of green technology. Green technology pushes us in the right direction, outward from the Sun, to the asteroids and the giant planets and beyond, where space is limitless and the frontier forever open. Green technology means that we do not live in cans but adapt our plants and our animals and ourselves to live wild in the universe as we find it. The Mongolian nomads developed a tough skin and a slit-shaped eye to withstand the cold winds of Asia. If some of our grandchildren are born with an even tougher skin and an even narrower eye, they may walk bare-faced in the winds of Mars. The question that will decide our destiny is not whether we shall expand into space. It is: shall we be one species or a million? A million species will not exhaust the ecological niches that are awaiting the arrival of intelligence.

The Clynes and Kline article is "Cyborgs and Space," Astronautics September 1960, pp. 29-33.

This post originally appeared on Centauri Dreams. Image of ROM the Spacknight pondering existence whilst doing tai chi via Siskoid.