NASA is already developing exoskeletons for use in space, both for assistance and exercise.
Of all of Superman's powers, the most underrated is his ability to travel through space unharmed. It's shrugged off as if it's part-and-parcel with flight, but it's so much more. Superman can kick it with the Curiosity rover for an afternoon if the whimsy strikes him. He can ice skate on Europa, and sail the methane seas of Titan—he can boldly go anywhere the sun still shines. His Kryptonian body just sucks it up.
In case you hadn't noticed, our bodies are not as versatile. They express a staunch preference for our planet, and they whine a lot when removed from it. The conventional approach to solving this problem is adapting extraterrestrial environments to suit our persistent bodily needs, whether that means terraforming planets or building large orbital colonies with Earth-like interiors. But why not draw inspiration from Superman, and take the opposite tack? Could we engineer our own bodies for outer space, as opposed to molding entire worlds to us?
As part of a history of this approach to space travel, Motherboard's Claire Evans noted that the idea had some sway with NASA in the 1960s. (The report produced at this time actually coined the term “cyborg.") But as she writes, “to this day, modifying humans for space exploration is an unexplored question.”
It's true that the bulk of the conversation about “human-forming” remains in the domain of science fiction. Even so, James Hughes, a bioethicist at Trinity College and author of Citizen Cyborg, thinks the tide may be turning.
“The technologies and scientific methodologies are certainly underway,” he says. “[People] are beginning to overcome the resistance to the transhumanist issues on the table.” Broadly speaking, these methodologies are grouped into three speculative areas, though there is plenty of overlap between each field.
Enhancing the Human Body with Robotics
In the near term, let's borrow the strategy of another superhero: Iron Man. Tony Stark doesn't have the advantages of a Kryptonian body, but that doesn't stop him from enjoying brief forays into space. Since we don't have innate spacefaring abilities, perhaps we can follow his example and build an exoskeleton that does.
DARPA has invested tons of research into developing exoskeletons and the like, and this tech could be a good place to start. These designs can triple the body's stamina and monitor diagnostic information, both useful features for astronauts. It's improbable that we'll have a space suit that could field every curveball space throws at us. But for now, there is potential to significantly increase the amount of time a spacefarer can spend off-Earth, as well as his or her level of mobility.
Exoskeleton technology has been around for years now, and could be the fastest path to making humans more ready for spaceflight. Why build a whole ship when you can just build it around a single human?
Nanotechnology presents a second possibility for robotic enhancement, by augmenting ourselves from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Again, we're not talking about a cosmic cure-all, in which ingesting nanobots makes us 100 percent Kryptonian (if only). But this line of inquiry could be promising for warding off diseases—especially cancers brought on by exposure to solar radiation, which poses a big problem for would-be Martian pioneers.
According to Hughes, we'd “need to figure out ways of boosting the flushing of damaged cells and protection of the tissues,” for this approach to work. “I suspect that our general interest in cancer prevention and mitigation is going to lead to something that are useful in that direction," he said.
Paul Root Wolpe, NASA's senior bioethicist, is more skeptical on the nanobot front. “I doubt we will be genetically enhancing or nanobotting our bodies to the degree Hughes suggests any time soon,” he said`. “Since we are already developing very sophisticated exoskeletons and even some brain-computer interfaces, I am fairly certain those technologies will be put into use for space exploration way ahead of biological technologies.”
Bio-Engineering a Human Body for Space
Wolpe's TED Talk, “It's Time to Question Bio-Engineering,” is a great way to catch up on the brain-busting advances made in this field, as well as on their inevitable ethical implications. As noted above, Wolpe thinks that genetically modifying humans for space will lag behind other approaches. Partly, this is due to scientific limitations, but mostly, it's the thorny ethical issues involved.
“Once it becomes possible, remember, the most effective enhancements will not be to adult humans but through genetically altering fetuses,” explained Wolpe. “While we can get informed consent from an adult, there is, will be, and should be much more ethical and social resistance to manipulating an embryo so that later we can send it into space—what if the resulting human does not want to go?”
Well, when put that way, forcing a genetically modified baby off its home planet does have a sinister edge. But what about a consenting adult? Wolpe throws out the speculative spitball of “using gene transfer technology to engineer, into a healthy adult, genes from a Mountain Yak to help them process oxygen more efficiently.” Hughes thinks there's potential in bio-engineering adults as well, especially regarding the problem of muscular atrophy over long periods in microgravity.
“I think there's a number of avenues of biomedicine that have suggested ways that we might tweak the metabolism of an astronaut in order to maintain muscle strength in space,” he said. Improving muscle retention would not only extend the periods of time humans could spend off-Earth, it could also mitigate the literal pressure of returning home.
Scrap the Human Body Altogether—The Brain is Where It's At
Kevin Warwick is a cybernetics expert at the University of Reading, a prolific author, and is one of the first humans to interface directly with machines. He thinks the focus on upgrading the body is a red herring. “The brain is the critical thing,” he said. “Even on Earth, the physical body that we've got is perhaps not suitable anymore. We could do with something better.”
Indeed, S. Matthew Liao, a bioethicist based out of New York University, has suggested we could help slow down climate change by tweaking our bodies to be more environmentally friendly. The implication is that our current incarnation may not even survive that much longer on our own planet, let alone others.
Warwick has conducted several intriguing experiments—like implanting an RFID chip in his arm and linking his neural network with his wife's—but perhaps the most evocative for space colonization enthusiasts is his rat-brained robot (affectionately named Gordon). This adorable rover is controlled entirely by a rat embryo's brain cells, and can make decisions about where to go, or even whether it wants to go anywhere at all. The goal is to replicate the experiment with human neurons, and begs the question of whether a brain could be implanted into a spacefaring machine or extraterrestrial rover.
“It's really a much simpler problem,” said Warwick. “Let's just work on keeping brains alive and then it doesn't matter about the body. You can send something up to Mercury that deals with all sorts of acids and so on. It can probably succeed okay with a human brain inside at as long as we know how to keep that human brain alive.”
And why limit ourselves to our solar neighborhood? “The possibility of taking brain cells, freezing them, and defrosting them when the space capsule gets to a distant planet seems to be a much more sensible way to go,” he said. “Or, it is a way to go.”
Hughes is also optimistic about the potential to create this brand of cyborg, and he's not even all that attached to the physical brain. “It doesn't make any sense at all to send bags of water and meat into space,” Hughes said. “In a very short period of time, evolutionarily, we're going to be able to transfer our consciousness into very small and far more durable forms.”
This notion of uploading the gist of a personality into a digital platform has been gaining traction among futurists for decades. Dmitry Itskov, the Russian futurist who counts Ray Kurzweil among his many supporters, hopes to tackle the problem by 2045.
Still, We've Got a Long Way to Go
It's a beautiful vision of the future, but it remains frustratingly visionary in 2013. “The truth is enhancing humans is, right now, not possible,” said Wolpe. “There are many science fiction scenarios here, but I think we are too early in the process to know which ones are plausible, safe, durable […] and so on.”
Say you're not involved in robotics, bioengineering, or brain-computer interfaces, but you are desperate to become a spacefaring cyborg already. There is one important arena in which everyone should contribute to the fledgling field: the ethics debate.
James Hughes says there’s a noticeable gap, broadly speaking, between Western hang-ups towards body hacking and the Eastern willingness to pursue it. He attributes it partly to the Abrahamic religious tradition, which is much less flexible about transhumanism than thought systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Even people who don't identify as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition can be influenced by the central premise that tinkering with the human body represents an act of hubris.
“For a lot of secular bioethics, things kind of creep in as a stand-in for the soul,” Hughes said. “You don't believe in a soul, but you want to gesture in that direction [so you] talk about something like 'human dignity.'”
Because of this, Hughes thinks the leaders of the space cyborg movement are more likely to emerge from Asia.
“Everybody basically from India to Japan is pretty gung-ho about technological progress and the prospects of human enhancement, so I think we're going to see very different approaches in terms of the space program” he said. “I could definitely safely predict that there would be far less resistance on the part of the Chinese to that particular proposal than there would be in the United States.”
Wolpe agrees that the increasing diversity of space programs will change the conversation. “I think, given the new scenario with multiple players trying different approaches to space, [...] including, by the way, China, and other countries, we will see a number of different strategies attempted or suggested before we find the one that seems to best fit our technologies and our social outlooks," he said.
A future space race is brewing, and it's aimed at escaping the meat bags we reside in. But because we're talking about hacking our bodies, and not a spaceship, the race may not be won by the fastest innovators. Instead, the winner may be whoever is most comfortable with producing a spacefaring cyborg in the first place.