genetic engineeringI suppose you can blame movies like Gattaca and Jurassic Park, technological advances with CRISPR and the fervent hopes of the entire medical industry on the fact that we’ve lately been seeing a lot of papers and articles from reputed and not-so-reputed authorities, claiming that the only way Mankind will be able to leave earth and explore the stars will be in genetically-augmented bodies.  It’s become de rigueur to assume we’ll soon be able to alter our physiologies the way we change suits, and go walking hand in hand on the surface of Mars in shorts and flip-flops.

A recent paper by cognitive scientist Konrad Szocik, from the University of Information Technology and Management in Poland, suggests that these genetic augmentations will be required for humans to live on other planets like Mars, where the environment is hazardous to us (for at least as long as it takes for us to learn how to terraform other planets).

But the idea of creating genetically-specialized humans is wrong-headed.  It not only ignores centuries of unfortunate human behavior, it ignores the single greatest accomplishment by Man to make sure we don’t need specialized bodies to survive in harsh conditions.

genetically altered beingFirst, let’s think about man’s predilection towards dividing each other into “us” and “them” along absolutely any physical or social differences they can think of.  Genetically altering humans to satisfy a new climate will mean a new type of human… one more group, minority, class, other guys, another division to fight over.  Mankind really doesn’t need another one of those.  It makes infinitely more sense to find a way to make sure anyone can go to another planet, while avoiding new classes of people.

It also makes more sense to make sure people stay the same, so they won’t be altered and thereby handed a life sentence on their new planet, moon or space environment.  Shows like The Expanse present us with people who are so acclimated to living in the asteroid belt, for instance, that their bodies can’t stand exposure to Earth’s gravity well and microbial biosphere.  This only serves to divide populations between Earth, Mars and the Belt, sowing rifts between them.  Given our historical reactions to Others, creating more reasons to divide humans is ridiculous… and in this case, totally unnecessary.

And that’s where Mankind’s greatest accomplishment comes in.  Thousands of years ago, Man found a way to accomplish great things.  Those accomplishments were all the more special because they could be accomplished by many people, regardless of their physical differences.  Those accomplishments could be repeated, on that day or years later, because the knowledge of the accomplishment could be passed down to others and taken to other regions.  It could be applied to one person or many, regardless of genetic, social or physical differences.  It’s the single thing that sets humans apart from all other animals.

It’s called Engineering.  And the same engineering that has allowed Mankind to live in any environment on Earth is capable of creating structures that will allow Mankind to live on another planet, or in the Environments outside of Oasis Earth.

Biosphere 2 interiorIt might help by going over what feats needs to be accomplished, and what has already been accomplished.  We’ve already demonstrated a limited ability to live in orbit, and on the Moon, for instance.  Creating airtight environments turned out to be easy, but engineers are still working on methods to maintain a healthy combination of other insects, microbes and bacteria in that sealed environment.  We continue to experiment and refine this, in studies on the ISS and in surface experiments, such as in the Biosphere2 experiments.  It’s a difficult task, but we have made some progress, and no one believes it’s insurmountable.  Creating stable but controllable biospheres may turn out to be our most vital future accomplishment.

2001Gravity has been tricky, as well.  So far, we’ve accepted whatever local gravity there was (if any), and dealt with it; but we know that human bodies don’t function at their best when subjected to long periods at less than 1 standard (Earth) gravity.  Fortunately, we also know how to create an artificial gravity using centripetal force.  Soon we should be testing this concept in orbit or open space, where a rotating drum could provide a fraction of or full level of gravity for the occupants—remember the spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey (right)?  Then, in environments that already have a fraction of a terrestrial gravity, we can augment that with a carousel construction that combines gravity with centrifugal force to simulate a 1-gee environment (more on the carousel system is provided in the post, A solution for long-term living on low-gravity planets).  Alternatively, as one Facebook poster pointed out to me, inhabitants could simply wear clothing with weights sewn into it to bring their local weight up to their full weight on Earth.  We can bring any place that has less than a terrestrial gravity to a full 1-gee when we’re ready to do so.

Radiation is also a major concern off-Earth, as we’ve been bred in an environment that shields most of that radiation from us.  In space, or on planets devoid of that natural radiation shielding, we’ll need to protect ourselves.  Geneticists suggest re-engineering our DNA to better rebuild itself after radiation damage, but organisms cannot fight the most severe radiation, and there’s nothing wrong with providing better shielding to prevent humans’ being damaged in the first place.

alon platesEngineers already know that simple water is a great radiation blocker, and spaceship designs that take advantage of a layer of water in the outer hull have been proposed.  Engineers are also discovering new properties about existing elements, and new compound elements, many based on adding forms of carbon fullerenes to existing compounds to create new and better properties.  So incredible is the potential of new elements engineers could come up with, that they’ve recently created an element, “transparent aluminum,” something that was used as a throwaway gag in a Star Trek movie, but is actually clear and strong as armor plate!  There may be ways to take advantage of the microgravity and hard vacuum of space to manufacture new compounds with incredible new properties, providing us new materials to use in orbital or planetary habitats much more efficient than what we have now.  It should be only a matter of time before engineers can provide a lightweight but robust radiation shielding for spacecraft, habitats, and even space suits, removing the need for genetic manipulation for radiation protection.

termes-16We’ve learned a lot about robotics and remote operation, thanks to our various robotic probes on Mars.  We’re also learning a lot about robotic construction equipment here on Earth.  Soon we’ll be able to combine them and send robots ahead of us, to actually build our future structures in space and on other planets and moons, test them and certify them ready for human habitation, before humans have even left Earth.  Presently we need to improve our robots’ independence and cognitive skills, so they can do the work, deal with any construction-related problems on their own and avoid wasting time waiting on remote human operators to diagnose every problem and tell them what to do.

We should be making solid plans to do that right now: Deciding on what we will need to shelter us (based on studies carried on by robot probes, as we are doing right now); designing the habitats, then designing the robots that will build those habitats (and repair each other as needed); and sending them into orbit, out to the Moon or Mars, and wherever else we want to go.  In fact, those robots should be able to provide enough of our maintenance and repair needs after the habitats are constructed to limit the number of people we need to send into space for production, manufacturing and repair jobs in exposed and hazardous areas, keeping more people safe.

Finally, many people (including Szocik) worry that living in sealed life support environments all of the time will turn out to be an experience humans cannot handle.  But considering the extreme environments that humans have learned to live on for extended periods—including the harsh regions of the Arctic… Antarctica, about as extreme as life on Earth gets… in submarine environments for months at a time… and on the International Space Station for as long as a year-long assignment—I can’t see that as a serious obstacle.  Scientists, psychologists and physiologists have been studying humans in sealed, cramped spaces for long periods, and are learning tricks and mental disciplines to help people deal with the isolation and sealed spaces.  (And remember: Those people won’t be totally isolated; they’ll be part of a team of people, doing their part of a shared job, having companionship.  That’s a big difference from being totally alone.)

We’ve accomplished a lot through engineering.  We’ll accomplish a lot more in the future.  Those accomplishments will allow any man or woman to visit space, spend time on mars or the Moon or some other planet or moon in the solar system.  And best of all, it will allow them to return to earth if they want to… or visit some other planet or moon… and still be the same human being when they return.  There’s no need to tailor someone’s physiology to one planet, thereby guaranteeing they will never be able to leave it.  Engineering will get us to the stars… and assure us we can always come back if we want to.