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Dust-Up

Transhumans in space

What role will genetic engineering and modification of human beings play in long-term space exploration? Is there any way humans in their present form can survive long trips into deep space? All this week, Rand Simberg and Homer Hickam debate the space program at 50.

October 5, 2007

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Today, Hickam and Simberg debate genetic solutions to the challenges of long-term space travel. Previously they discussed the grudge match between private space entrepreneurs and the federal space agency, examined the moon and Mars for signs of human life and assessed national space ambitions and NASA's role in achieving them.

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By Homer Hickam

So here we are at the end of our Dust-Up, Rand. I've enjoyed our civil and cordial discussion, recognizing that we both want what is best for our country and for the exploration of space.

I'm going to get to today's provocative questions, but first I'd like to reflect a little on some of the commentary we've received during the week. Some of the folks who have written come across to me as essentially pessimistic and reflexively negative, not only about the space program but about life in general. This bothers me, especially because I believe that Americans should always be optimistic, considering who and what we are and the freedoms we have. I have always found the best way to live is to be optimistic and energetic and willing to work hard for my dreams as well as the dreams of others.

Negative attitudes, in contrast, are terribly self-destructive. I wrote a book called "We Are Not Afraid" that maybe could help some of these folks, who I'm sure really don't like being so miserable. I'm not trying to sell a book here — it came out in 2002 and already had a great run — But I do urge folks who think life is a little slice of hell, and nobody is good, and nothing wonderful is ever going to happen to them to maybe go to their local library and take a peek at it. I want all those sour, gloomy folks out there who seem to have trouble grabbing the spark of a good life to rethink the way they think. Remember, it isn't the dreamers who have good lives, it's the doers. Remember also what I call the three Ps of success: passion, planning and perseverance. First, look inward and figure out what your passion in life is. Then, get yourself a plan to attain it, which almost always means more education. Of course, the most important of the Ps is perseverance. Persevere with a plan to reach your passion and life will be good. This I promise. Of course, Rand, you know all this. You have a good productive life because you knew instinctively the three Ps.

Now, to the question of the day. Rand, I doubt seriously that genetic engineering and modifying human beings is ever going to play a role in space exploration. The moral and philosophical ramifications of such an idea are breathtaking to the extreme. And from a practical viewpoint, why bother? We already have robots to explore space, and we can design them even better in the future. Even genetically tweaked flesh and blood is never going to be as strong and durable as steel titanium, and aluminum. Of course, if the world got taken over by some neo-Nazi outfit in the future, I guess anything is possible, but otherwise, it isn't likely to happen.

The second question on whether humans in their present form can survive long trips into deep space is a really good one. The answer is, it depends on the ship, how fast it can go, the destination and the humans going. Because we don't have any starships, nor will we for some time, I'm going to focus on a tangible mission, humans to Mars. This much we know for certain. The space between Earth and Mars is a very harsh place. It has temperature extremes from super-hot to super-cold, and it is filled with deadly radiation.

Mars is also a very, very long way and, using our present technology, i.e. chemical rockets, it would take many months to get there. One thing we've learned about space is that the human body starts to fall apart after relatively short exposures to microgravity (weightlessness). Our bones atrophy, our muscles go soft and our hearts get weaker. Of course, artificial gravity would help that situation, but so far the only idea anyone has come up with is to put space humans in a big centrifuge. The problem with that is no one has ever tried it and we're not sure how the human inner ear will take it. It just may be that if we landed a human on Mars after being spun for some months, he would stagger around like a drunk congressman. Even when his head stopped spinning, likely our poor human would glow in the dark from all the radiation received on the way.

So all this is my way of saying that I sincerely doubt humans are ever going to Mars on chemical rockets. It's just too long a trip for mere mortals, even ones who love to be cooped up for months and don't mind getting cancer, damaged hearts or early osteoporosis.

So what's a Mars ship designer to do? The answer is he must design a ship that gets through space just as fast as possible, one that can zip through all that radiation and maybe provide a little gravity along the way. In other words, what is needed to go to Mars are nuclear ships, big boomers that once lighted, stay lighted to accelerate halfway to Mars, then turn around to decelerate, thus providing a form of straightforward gravity. Nukes could get humans to Mars in a matter of weeks, not months, meaning their human cargo would be in pretty good shape to land and go to work. So you "Let's go to Mars" folks, start pressing for big, bad nuclear rockets if you're really serious. To consider this idea further, you might want to take a look at an interview on big space boomers I gave to Nuclear News a couple of years ago.

So as Forrest Gump said, that's all I've got to say about that. Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with us. I hope we've said some things you haven't considered and will now give some thought. And thank you, Rand, for a most interesting discussion. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have!

Homer Hickam is an engineer, former NASA designer and astronaut trainer, a veteran of the 4th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War and the author of nine bestselling books, including the acclaimed memoir "Rocket Boys," which was made into the film "October Sky."


Don't count the mutants out just yet
By Rand Simberg

Well, Homer, I agree with you about the pessimists. I'm fundamentally optimistic about our future, here on Earth and in space, though it sometimes seems as though the folks in Washington are doing everything they can to peg my gloom meter. But I think that you yourself are too pessimistic about what advances we'll be making in biotechnology and other related areas in the future, perhaps even the near future.

I have nothing against nuclear rockets, and am in fact all in favor of them. But I don't think that they're a panacea for the challenges of the extraterrestrial environment to human physiology. Fortunately, people are already working on techniques — some of which derive from existing natural ones that we're born with but which our bodies forget how to do as we age, and some artificial ones that use molecular-level devices for doing body repair at a cellular level. The even better news is that they are doing so for reasons having nothing to do with spaceflight, which means that their continued funding will be more secure.

Radiation damage is simply cellular damage. If we can learn how to repair such damage — something that our bodies do well when young — and do it fast enough, one can sustain an almost arbitrarily large amount of it while staying in good health. (Note that if you want to ride a nuclear rocket, radiation repair would be a handy trick as well.)

Cardiovascular deconditioning in free-fall is simply a matter of vascular muscles atrophying from lack of use because they don't have to work as hard to pump blood against gravity. There may be techniques developed to mitigate this as well (again, for strengthening cardiovascular systems even in one gravity, which would reduce the incidence of earthly coronaries, strokes and aneurysms). Bone de-densification is (partially) a consequence of lack of exercise and the shock of walking, which could be mitigated by molecular osteopathic repair, something that many aging women could use right now.

Even without such advanced technologies, of course, humans in new environments will evolve to them, as they have to new environments on Earth (e.g., squat body types among the Inuit to reduce the heat-radiation area of the body to maintain body temperature in the cold, or less melanin content in the skin at high latitudes to allow the absorption of more vitamin D from less available sunlight). Will someone raised in a zero-gravity environment, who after generations has only vestigial legs from lack of need, or perhaps more prehensile toes or even a tail as an extra appendage with which to grab on to holds, still be a human?

Coming from the other direction, what if we take the titanium and aluminum and silicon emissaries that we've been sending out to other worlds and upload our minds into them, if such a thing is possible? Would they be human?

All of this discussion, of course, raises the question — what is human and what is a transhuman? And who will settle space?

Joel Garreau wrote a very good book on the coming age of machine intelligence and enhanced humans, called "Radical Evolution," in which he asks just such questions. If we can imbue machines with our own consciousness, are they human? Or do we need the hormones that continually wash through our bodies and brains and seem to mediate our emotions and feelings? Are people suffering diseases that may be caused when such processes get out of control, including schizophrenia and clinical depression, still human? And if so, if we come up with a cure and can calm the chemical storms roiling the synapses, have they become less so? And note, Homer, it doesn't require some monstrous return of the Nazis for this to happen — just free individuals, making individual decisions to enhance their bodies, and (hopefully, anyway) their lives.

Garreau came up with something he called the Bard Test (analogous to the famous Turing Test to determine if an entity was intelligent and conscious). If you could take the person (or persons) who wrote Shakespeare's works, and show him the interactions of such creatures, would he recognize them as human? Think of it as kind of like the old saying about art, or pornography, "I can't define human, but I know it when I see it." He uses "Star Trek" as an example. Picard and Riker? Sure. Troi? Despite the empathic stuff, yup. Worf? Well, once you get past the bizarre ridges and facial features, pretty much, yeah. How about Data? Could be. Sure have to give him points for a good effort.

Life has been evolving on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. So far, the highest product of that evolutionary process (at least in terms of enabling life to expand beyond the planet on which it was born) is the human species. Humans put a little beeping sphere into orbit 50 years ago to get things rolling, and humans will lead the charge of life out into the cosmos. In the future, they may not be the fragile bags of meat and bone we know today, but I suspect that they will be creatures who fill the universe with life and love and laughter (and yes, all of the other, less desirable traits that go with being human), and they will be our children.

I've enjoyed this discussion too, Homer. I hope that we can do it again, perhaps on the 100th anniversary, in a bar in the shadow of the walls of Tycho, or with a long view of a lunar mare, perhaps overlooking the historic Apollo 11 site. And I hope (and am optimistic) that we'll still be young enough to enjoy it.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and manager, and commenter on space policy. He is also the blogger behind the website Transterrestrial Musings.

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