Samson Williams and I discussed at length some of the shifting alliances and new power geographic blocks in the global space industry. Space agencies, countries, and companies in India, China, Latin America, and Africa increasingly leverage the power of networks at home and abroad so that emerging talent capitalizes on global value supply chains. It’s rare to find the opportunity these days to discuss the space economy along with some of the more provocative aspects of our sustainability in space.
Samson dives deep into the psychological and innately human components of the space industry. Among his many entrepreneurial endeavors, his anthropology and disaster management background offers fresh perspectives.
“Everybody is looking at the money. When I look at the space economy, I’m really looking at the human effects. It’s not just the physics of it. It’s psychology. Space is less brawn and more brains. So if it’s rough for you in the lockdown of COVID-19, get in a ship 100 million miles off Earth and let me know how well your brain is functioning.”
These are strong points. Isolation, anxiety, claustrophobia, and stress are powerful triggers for primal human emotions. Many of us have experienced these during the strict COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines.
Not surprisingly, the study of human productivity and emotional well-being in space is one of the areas actively studied by scientists worldwide. In the United States, NASA has a dedicated Human Research Program (HRP) to integrate these areas of research. The Moscow-based Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP RAS) explores space medicine in coordination with Roscosmos.
Samson also brings up the hot topic of evolutionary biology and sexual reproduction.
“I was talking recently with Dr. Rowena Christiansen, a medical doctor and health specialist in Australia, and Founder of the ad astra vita project. To have a permanent human settlement on the Moon, Mars, and beyond we need to reproduce in space. Obviously, no one has ever done that in space. So there’s something completely different to contemplate in the reproductive cycle.”
Samson’s observations raise a critical topic: how do we reproduce and evolve to settle in space environments?
A fascinating article titled Human Adaptation to Deep Space Environment: An Evolutionary Perspective of the Foreseen Interplanetary Exploration was recently published in Frontiers in Public Health by a team of interdisciplinary experts.
The authors write:
“This perspective [of deep space exploration over the long term] requires subscribing to a new paradigm that no longer sees ‘long-term’ as months or years but rather as time in an evolutionary context. This means that instead of thinking about the physiological and psychological response of the human body to the space environment, we must consider the adaptations that will be naturally selected by this extreme environment. The long-term objective may then be to provide humanity an access to space shelters (i.e., spaceships or exoplanets) in order to survive the Sun’s death.
Traveling into deep space should also be a concern for evolutionary biology and ecology research fields. Including evolutionary concepts to better assess the long-term challenges imposed by the presence of humans in space could open up new perspectives for imagining how future successful generations of humans will cope with the environmental conditions of space.”
These angles of inquiry on evolutionary paths are equally essential as the physics and economics of propulsion technologies. I often ask myself and others what will be needed to sustain life in space and other worlds?
An admirer of the integration between physics and art, I keep in my library one of the most wonderfully illustrated books in theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). Hawking delves into these types of questions head-on. He raises poignant questions about the current limitations in our physiology, biology, and evolution.
“We are at the beginning of a new era, in which we will be able to increase the complexity of internal records, the DNA, without having to wait for the slow process of biological evolution…My intention is not to defend human genetic engineering as a desirable development, but just to say it is likely to happen whether we want it or not…I think the human race, and its DNA, will increase its complexity quite rapidly. We should recognize that this is likely to happen and consider how we will deal with it. In a way, the human race needs to improve its mental and physical qualities if it is to deal with the increasingly complex world around it and meet new challenges such as space travel…Humans also need to increase their complexity if biological systems are to keep ahead of electric ones. On the biological side, the limit on human intelligence up to now has been set by the size of the brain that will pass through the birth canal…But within the next hundred years, I expect we will be able to grow babies outside the human body, so this limitation will be removed…Space travel beyond our solar system will probably require either genetically engineered humans or unmanned computer-controlled probes.”
These observations and proposals about human evolution in the context of deliberate genetic engineering and human-machine dynamics are not for the faint of mind or heart. Neural implants and the growth of embryos outside the human body raise complex ethical considerations. I've no pithy answers and so many questions. Nevertheless, I intend to acknowledge all of these as distinctive angles of inquiry into our humanity, especially in the context of space travel, research, and exploration. Space will increasingly demand that we go beyond our limits and comfort zones. I wonder how humans and machines will evolve together?
Stream of consciousness [photos]
I have a particular fascination for open rooftop parking garages that overlook skyscrapers. It's a good reminder of the spectacular engineering and construction feats humans have been able to do.
I often wonder how does one prepare for extended spaceflight? What does it truly mean to have no quick easy exits?