At the end of February, beginning of March 2016, the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop 2016 Symposium was held at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. TVIW (pronounced "tee-view") holds symposia roughly every eighteen months and rotates locations throughout the Tennessee Valley, from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Huntsville, Alabama. Recent symposia have featured working tracks that allow participants several hours to discuss problems that need to be solved before the Human Race is ready to take a leap to interstellar exploration and colonization. For 2016, I was privileged to lead the “Homo Stellaris” working track which discussed the physiological, sociological and psychological adaptation that humans may undergo to sustain a dream of going to the stars. This article includes a report of that working track. That’s followed by a more free-form discussion of the main space-based hazards to human life, some adaptations that may be necessary to facilitate space travel, and the author’s reflection on how science fiction participates in the conceptualization—and even the implementation—of many of these concepts.
Homo Stellaris Report, TVIW 2016.
One of the charges presented to the Homo Stellaris working track was the formation of a synergy group of select participants who would combine the various discussions of biological, psychological, social and political adaptations of humans necessary to support interstellar exploration and colonization. One of the first conclusions of the synergy group was that many of the adaptations would be mission-specific. In particular, exploratory missions that do not result in colonization would have different adaptations than establishing colonies. Thus, exploratory crews would have to concentrate on adapting humans to space conditions—low gravity, low atmospheric pressure, confinement, isolation, small crew military or mission-oriented social structure, well-defined mission objectives. In contrast, colonists would need to adapt to a specific planetary environment, community-based social structure, a growing population and high flexibility in tasks and goals supporting colony growth.
More important, however, was a key conclusion of the synergy group—that human engineering should be naturally and organically evolved rather than imposed externally. Thus, rather than imposing these changes on a group of interstellar explorers and colonists, humanity as a whole needs to practice these changes via a vibrant, self-sustaining space culture with a multigenerational presence at least out to the orbit of Jupiter before mission design can enter the serious phase. This is both for purposes of handling the inevitable tech advancements that must be achieved to create and sustain this, and for adapting to social structures intrinsic to off-Earth permanent habitation to have evolved on their own.
Local Proving Ground
One of the assumptions of the synergy group was that the physiological issues of long-duration space missions would already be solved prior to launching an interstellar mission. One means of ensuring that humans adapt to space is to get out and live there! However, this also assumes that psychological and sociological adaptations to long-duration existence in space have also evolved naturally along with many of the technological precursors for the mission. Unfortunately, this is by no means guaranteed, and there we humans must be prepared for failures—of habitat, of health, and of isolated social groups—along the way.
On the other hand, multigenerational isolated community missions (i.e. colonization) represent a social engineering challenge that cannot be adequately duplicated by a strictly Solar System-based civilization. The Homo Stellaris group was charged with projecting the factors necessary for anticipated missions one hundred years in advance of the present. However, the synergy group felt that even one hundred years (assuming that we could launch a space-based society today), was not sufficient time to prove that any reasonable social framework based on current political models would be viable for a colony totally isolated from Earth. In other words, even with a vibrant Solar System society, experimenting with asteroid vs. space-station, stationary vs. nomadic, even totally isolated worldships, different colony proofs-of-concept can only be partially examined.
So the social structure of an interstellar colony constitutes a major mission risk even assuming that the challenges of propulsion and life prolongation have already been solved. To offset this risk, small crew exploratory missions would probably be better, even to the extent of allowing the crew to procreate once the initial mission objectives are completed. The added benefit would be that a small colony seed would have positive effect on the crew as well as the home (Earth) population of potential colonists.
Worldships and Generation Ships
Readers will note that the above discussion omits multigenerational ships (i.e. slow interstellar craft in which the crew is renewed via procreation during the transit) and worldships (essentially sealed colonies with a space drive). There were two reasons for this omission, first is that there was a separate working track at TVIW 2016 that was specifically charged with developing ideas for worldships. The second, and in this context, more relevant reason is that the very concept of Worldships is antithetical to interstellar colonization.
It may very well be the case that a natural component of Solar System colonization will be to build structures (or hollowed-out asteroids) which contain complete biospheres. Such a closed-loop life system will be self-sustaining, and can support humans as a compromise between wholly planet-based vs. ship or station-based lifestyles. A worldship may serve as a larger, more robust space station or may constitute a stand-alone colony in its own right.
Worldships are an end in and of themselves. If the biosphere will be viable for the projected duration of the mission, then it will most likely be viable well in excess of the mission timeline. A worldship is a colony. Once established, attaching engines or even an interstellar drive to a worldship may provide mobility, but to what end? Why send it to another star system? If it is merely a vessel to transport colony and crew, what is the guarantee that they will want to leave the habitat once the destination is reached? Certainly a worldship can be designed to last only for the duration of transit, but that requires several dangerous assumptions, mainly, that the design life is accurate and critical systems will not fail prior to reaching destination. Modern engineering is not so perfect that humanity can guarantee zero defects prior to the planned date of obsolescence.
No, worldships are not transport vessels. They are, however, important colony practice environments. The more experience we gain from engineering biospheres and ecosystems (not to mention self-contained communities), the better prepared we will be for dealing with new planetary environments.
Given a direction away from multigenerational ships, the synergy group felt that emphasis should be places on the desirability of gene selection that would extend life, provide greater intrinsic biological space radiation, and optimize the human body for a lower gravity regimen. A robust space-based society will likely already seek these genetic developments through multiple-generation communities off Earth. This also points back to the advantage of allowing space communities within the Solar System to be fundamental breeding and proving grounds for the crew composition and colony population.
In addition to intrinsic physical life extension and robustness in deep space, interstellar exploration will most likely require some form of cryogenic suspension. While such medical technology is still science fiction, advances in surgical techniques, unexplored opportunities resident in what has been called junk DNA, and lessons learned from vertebrate animals which can successfully survive 0°C temperatures without damage to cells caused by the formation of ice crystals. Thus, an optimal scenario might be one in which a crew splits into shifts such that half would be in cryogenic suspension at a time. Cycling crew in and out of hibernation would allow for sufficient crew on-watch to deal with both routine and emergency situations at any given point in the mission. Number and composition of these shifts will rely heavily on lessons learned from submarine crews, space habitat simulations (such as Antarctic bases, HI-SEAS and MARS 500), and practice in the form of future Solar System-based habitats.
Between increased lifespan, and deferred per person mission activity equal to only twenty-five to fifty percent of the total mission, great-than-fifty-year mission times would reduce the subjective passage of time to scenarios with comparatively low social engineering requirements compared to generational or world ships. As an added advantage, the percentage of the spacecraft (and colonization materials) devoted to life-support can be reduced accordingly. To further extend those resources, the synergy group suggested that smaller-scale automated cargo probes could be launched ahead of the main mission enabling rendezvous and resupply at key navigational waypoints for the crewed mission. These probes would constitute additional proof-of-concept for mission engineering as well as progressively more advanced survey and reconnaissance of target systems.
The Homo Stellaris working track was additionally tasked with describing an interstellar mission based on their discussions—assuming conventional space drives (based on known physics), necessary precursors for a space-based society, and the societal will to undertake such a mission.
The track discussion concluded with a recommendation for selecting of initial target systems at the shortest possible range of not beyond eighteen to twenty light-years. Assuming about one hundred years to develop the technology for continuous thrust (allowing final velocities approaching single-digit percentages, i.e. one to nine percent of light-speed); the newly discovered rocky planet at Proxima Centauri B is only about forty to fifty years away. More likely candidate worlds for exploration such as Wolf 1061, Gliese 876, Gliese 682 and Gliese 832 would be around 150 years away. Superior drive performance and improvements in life-prolongation would allow further distance coupled to reduction of mission time, and simplification in mission logistics. Such a mission may very well be within our reach in the next century as long as we solve the problems of how to transfer Homo sapiens into Homo Stellaris.
[Acknowledgement for this report: I would like to thank Dr. Charles E. Gannon, Sarah A. Hoyt, Connie Trieber, Chris Oakley and Doug Loss for their contributions to the Homo Stellaris Synergy Report from TVIW 2016. In addition, I greatly appreciate the assistance of Philip Wohlrab, Cathe Smith and Sandra Medlock for moderating and facilitating the discussions of the Homo Stellaris working track. For more information about the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, and the TVIW 2017 Symposium, please visit http://www.tviw.us.]
Now onward to further discussion . . .
Adapting Humans to Space
Before any consideration of whether to adapt humans to new environments or adapt those environments to better suit humans, we need to examine just what the conditions, and particularly the hazards, are that would require adaptation. NASA's Human Research Roadmap currently identifies 33 identified risks—"Risks include physiological and performance effects from hazards such as radiation, altered gravity, and hostile environments, as well as unique challenges in medical support, human factors, and behavioral health support"—and 317 gaps in current scientific knowledge—"Gaps represent the critical questions that need to be answered to mitigate a risk and therefore serve to focus the areas of research work to address risk reduction milestones."
Note that in the table shown above, the risks are currently grouped into four main areas:
Some of these risks are rather obvious—such as gravity. In the absence of a 1G gravity field, fluid balance in the human body is altered, the heart alters its pumping, long bones no longer bear weight and lose rigidity, muscles become weak. Lesser known effects however include disorders of vision and balance as the fluid pressure in the brain increases. One of the least known publicly, yet serious disorders for astronauts, is vision alteration as a result of reduced gravity. On Earth, gravity causes about 80% of the body's total water content (and hence, blood, lymph and other fluids) to be below the heart. So many of the conditions we humans associate with pathology—such as edema and heart failure—are the result of human adaptation to walking upright. With reduced gravity, the body's fluid redistributes evenly, even to the former "highest" points, resulting the puffy faced-look common to astronaut pictures from orbit. At the same time, fluid pressure in the brain increases, while paradoxically the pressure inside the eye decreases. The result is deformation of the eyeball, causing nearsightedness at best, and blindness at worst.
Other body fluid-related issues have been experienced by astronauts, as illustrated by the experience of Astronaut Walter M. Schirra, Jr. Mercury/Gemini/Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra was a great test pilot and one of the most expert commentators for Apollo missions, but he had a miserable time in orbit due to increased fluid retention in the head—notably, he developed a rhinovirus infection (head cold) during Apollo 7, and could get no relief from congestion and sinus pain since sinuses cannot drain in free fall.
[Note that I said "free-fall." There is a trend among SF authors and audiences to use the term "microgravity" for the perceived lack of planetary gravitational effects within an orbiting object—here's why that's not the right word . . . ] One of the complicating factors in deciphering gravitational effects on the human body is that in orbit, one is still subject to nearly the full force of Earth gravity. If it were possible for an astronaut to be absolutely unmoving at orbital height, that person would feel 1G, directed downward . . . and soon they, too, would be directed downward at a pace described as 1G acceleration. To stay in orbit, an object requires a tangential velocity that moves the object away from Earth gravity. Since exactly canceling Earth gravity normally results in a circular orbit, the actual vectors of inward and outward force are balanced, and our theoretical astronaut feels no gravity, despite being in constant motion. In physics terms, this is "free-fall."
In contrast, as humans move out into the Solar System, they will encounter regions where the sun and planets are too far away for their gravity to be felt. Smaller bodies such as asteroids will nevertheless exert lesser forces of gravity which will affect spacecraft and humans. This is the true region of "microgravity" and will indeed complicate things for the human body.
To date, our science has no good solutions to free-fall and microgravity. We do not know whether the Moon's 0.16 G or Mars' 0.35 G will be sufficient to stop deterioration of bone and muscle. We have some medications to slow the decay, but we don't have a solution yet. Even spin-induced artificial gravity—Arthur C. Clarke's giant space wheels, or Andy Weir's rotating spacecraft—are untested. We do not know whether solving the problems of up and down via rotation will introduce other problems with the human inner ear. So far, we don't have any structures in space that are large enough to even begin testing these concepts.
The radiation encountered on Earth bears little resemblance to the type of radiation encountered in space. X-rays, CT scans—even Gamma Radiation for cancer therapy or as a result of a nuclear incident—are photons. They produce effects by heating or ionizing the tissues of the body. The most common particulate radiation outside a cyclotron or supercollider is neutrons from a nuclear reaction, and energetic, free neutrons on Earth are quite rare. In space, however, the majority of radiation hazard is from particles. The solar wind is plasma—atomic nuclei stripped to its basic components of isolated electrons, protons, and bare helium nuclei. Neutrons are rather rare, and mainly occur inside spacecraft when external radiation interacts with the materials of the exterior, ionizing the material and releasing free neutrons.
Background cosmic radiation is everywhere, and comes from every direction, consisting of heavy atomic nuclei stripped of electrons and accelerated to near light-speed by nova and supernova explosions throughout the cosmos. A common component of Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) is termed an "HZE," which stands for “High Z and Energy"—Z in this case being the atomic value for valence or charge resulting from removing electrons and leaving the positive charge associated with the number of protons in the nucleus. NASA scientists studying the effects of space radiation often test the effects of the HZE Fe26+, iron atoms with Molecular Weight of 56, stripped of all electrons, leaving the highly charged 26 protons and 30 neutrons of the atomic nucleus. Fe26+ atoms are accelerated by approximately 600-to-1000 million electron volts (megaEV or MEV) to simulate just one component of GCR. At that energy and speed, the iron atoms zip right through living tissue, leaving a physical trail, as well as pulling electrons from nearby atoms. It's a good thing they keep going, though, for if the HZEs were to encounter enough tissue to slow to a stop, and recover enough electrons to reach zero charge, the resulting heat release would cause a steam explosion destroying the unlucky organism that happens to trap the HZE.
On Earth's surface, we are protected from HZEs and other components of GCRs and solar wind by a thick atmosphere and Earth's electrically and magnetically charged "magnetosphere." No human being has ever completely left the Earth's magnetosphere, which typically reaches 60,000 miles above Earth's surface. The International Space Station orbits around 400 miles altitude, and most satellites, including geostationary ones, orbit within 25,000 miles. Even the twenty-seven American astronauts who orbited or landed on the Moon were at least partially protected by the "magnetotail," a tear-drop shaped region shaped by solar wind that points outward from Earth's orbit for hundreds of millions of miles encompassing the Moon for about 4 days on either side of the Full Moon each month. [Hint, Apollo missions took place close to the full Moon in order to reduce the influence of shadows on the surface.]
A mission to Mars and any long-duration habitation of space will require solutions to the effects of space radiation on the human body. Aside from cancer risk, or the purely physical damage ala "sunburn" from solar radiation, radiation similar to that which will be encountered outside Earth's orbit will cause damage to bone, cartilage, blood vessels and brain. We can build more shielding into our ships and habitats, but can we adapt and maybe even engineer humans to be more resistant to space radiation? Again, as with models of artificial gravity, no human has truly been there, so we have no experience on which to base an answer.
Closed Environments, Isolation, and Distance from Earth
The good news is that the other risk categories can be studied here—and hopefully solved—a lot closer to Earth. ISS crews spend six-to-twelve months in cramped quarters, with small crews, crowded schedules and limits to communications. In many ways, submarine crews are models for the type of interpersonal problems that occur with crews in cramped quarters. Antarctic scientific stations, as well as space simulations such as the 180-to-500-day mission simulators HI-SEAS on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and MARS 500 in Moscow, provide testbeds for crew interactions and self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, there has been no good simulation of the complete closed ecosystem such as will be required for permanent stations, colonies and worldships. The Biosphere 2 experiments in 1991-1993 and 1994 failed due to oxygen balance problems resulting from interactions between building materials and the air and humidity of the internal environment.
Yet again, it would appear that the best means of solving these problems will be to get out into space and try. It is guaranteed that there will be failures, which points out the final "hazard" of life in space: society's will to accept risk and explore.
We live in a risk-averse world. The original Apollo program was extremely lucky to lose only three astronauts to spacecraft complications (Apollo 1) and even there, the incident occurred on the ground. The only (publicized) potential loss-of-life incident in space (Apollo 13) was resolved successfully. On the other hand, we lost two complete crews to Space Shuttle accidents, and each time, missions resumed only after extensive hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Andy Weir's The Martian is optimistic. The more likely outcome was for astronaut Mark Watney to die (at worst) immediately following puncture of his suit, or at best to starve when food supplies ran out.
If humans are to eventually go to the stars, we will first have to go out into space, beyond the ISS, beyond the Moon, even beyond Mars. To do that, we not only have to want to go, we have to do so in the face of risk and loss.
Homo Stellaris in Science Fiction
There is hope, however, and that hope comes from Science Fiction. Speculative fiction has always been a playground of the mind, a way to explore ideas and concepts through thought experiments. The more we question and think about not only the problems, but also use our imaginations to think up solutions, the better prepared we humans will be to adapt and overcome the risks of living, working and thriving in space.
Early SF, from back in the pulp days and before, didn't worry too much about adapting humans to space or other planets—mainly because so little was known about the differences humans would encounter once they left the surface of Earth. Space was still "the ether" and either just like the atmosphere (only thinner) or simply ignored. Hence we had images of airborne ships "sailing" to the moon and Buck Rogers riding on the outside of his rocketship. Verne proposed that a large enough cannon could simply "fire" a ship to the moon, where they would be greeted by outlandish beings who breathed air and lived on human-style food. To the credit of SF writers of the time, the genre has always tolerated inaccuracies as long as the story was entertaining, and the early pulp writers did not have the extensive knowledge base of interplanetary space and exoplanetary biology that we have now.
Once it was generally accepted that space was a vacuum, and that both space and other planetary environments held many hazards to human health, SF turned to the idea that humans would naturally take those environments with them, and re-create a terrestrial environment on other worlds. The concept behind "terraforming" was that dry, airless worlds with sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere could be given one, and that non-oxygen atmospheres could be converted to the 70% nitrogen/20% oxygen mix that humans require. There are many examples of terraforming in SF: Robert A. Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky, Isaac Asimov's The Martian Way, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). Of these, Robinson probably approximated the best time-line, although current scientific conjecture is that a mere two hundred years to terraform Mars is likely 800 years short of the actual time-line. James S.A. Corey's Expanse Series (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, etc.) indirectly deals with terraforming via the implication that vast amounts of asteroid water would be required for the millennia-long terraforming of Mars. The concepts of terraforming have had a recent showcase in Andy Weir's The Martian, where the protagonist uses human metabolic wastes to condition a small sample of Martian soil to grow crops. While it made for a good story, a botanist of my acquaintance insists it could never work, since it did not account for the highly toxic perchlorates in Martian soil.
At its most extreme, terraforming would be extended to building worlds and ships from scratch to suit human habitation. Larry Niven's Ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke's Rama planetoid (Rendezvous with Rama) represent massive engineering feats dedicated to one purpose—building a new habitat friendly to human or humanlike life. But if creating such structures is too large to even imagine at this point, what about limiting the terraforming to smaller habitats?
From Domed Cities to Spacesuits
One of the most common book-cover images from SF is the space-suited astronaut on a hill looking over a valley of domes. This graphic image fits most perceptions of initial planetary habitats—from Heinlein's lunar domes in "The Menace from Earth" to the ARES domes of The Martian. Unlike Edgar Rice Burrough's Earth-like worlds of Barsoom (Mars) and Cosoom (Venus), most SF writers have generally assumed that humans will need to confine their terrestrial reconstruction to domed and underground cities. Given what we now know about the air, soil and radiation conditions on the Moon, Mars, Venus, those assumptions are generally correct. In fact, most extraterrestrial communities will need to be underground for maximum protection, although personally, I want to see cloud cities on Venus!
In space, the equivalent of "underground" is inside rocky asteroids and planetoids. James S.A. Corey's "Expanse" introduces readers to a (mostly) thriving community tunneled deep inside Ceres, an echo of earlier works (Asimov's "The Dying Night" and Lucky Starr novels, Pournelle's "He Fell Into A Dark Hole," High Justice, and Exiles to Glory, Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, Red Planet and The Rolling Stones) which proposed Ceres (and Pallas, in Charles Sheffield's The Ganymede Club) as an intermediate habitation between Inner and Outer Solar System. The use of asteroids as habitats is implicit in both Niven's and Corey's "Belters" who prefer a life in space over life "in a hole" or "down the [gravity] well" on a planet.
In each of these examples, the habitats are designed to be as self-sustaining as possible. Breathable air is generated and refreshed by plants, water is recycled and mined from other asteroids, and gravity is generated by some variation on centrifugal force. These are habitats in which humans can live without adaptation, much as a spacesuit captures a small volume of terrestrial life-support and keeps a human from being exposed to the hazards of space—the key differences being size and various degrees of independence from replenishing the environment—with space suits being low independence, needing constant replenishment, and the largest habitats being totally self-sufficient.
It is important to note that simply providing a sheltering terrestrial environment will not prevent humans from adapting to the novel aspects of their new habitats. Low gravity regimes cause a reduction in bone and muscle mass, and a weakening of the heart. In Heinlein's Waldo, this was treated as a benefit, with the low gravity allowing a person to thrive who would otherwise be invalid on Earth. Niven has written probably the best examples of humans adapting to their environments over short periods of time—Belters are tall, thin and dexterous; Jinxians (heavy gravity) are short and inordinately strong (but suffer from heart disease); Crashlanders, who live underground, have a high percentage of albinos. Note that these are short-term adaptations which rely on adaptive mechanisms, and not really "evolution" of the human form. So what should adaptations to space look like? A few likely adaptations are (A) high melanin content (dark skin) as protection from radiation; (B) change in body height and shape in accordance with gravity—short for high gravity, tall for low gravity; improved heart function and circulation for dealing with fluid redistribution; (C) changes in diameter and volume of the fluid-filled spaces in the eye and brain; (D) alterations in the inner ear to allow humans to be less sensitive to vertigo and rotation.
What about actually intending to alter humans for space, or genetically designing particular traits? Probably the best SF treatment(s) of genetic alterations come from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. The advanced Beta Colony and crime syndicate world of Jackson's Whole employ advanced genetic engineering techniques, the latter mainly to develop custom indentured servants. Many examples of gene editing and engineering are used throughout the series, such as the cloning (and editing) of Miles Vorkosigan's genome. For another example, David Weber's Honor Harrington series deals with engineered humans—appearing as both illegal gene editing in the slaves of the Mesan Alignment, and as the beneficial engineering employed by Allison Chou to decrease infant mortality on Grayson.
In Bujold's and Weber's writing, the stories advance the idea that engineering humans to novel environments was simply "helping evolution" by speeding up the process, rather than tolerating the slow pace of adaptation. The examples of low or no gravity and toxic heavy metals are precisely the types of environments humans can expect to encounter. Other examples might be low (or high) oxygen and high radiation. We actually see adaptations to low oxygen in humans living at high altitude. Resistance to radiation may very well lie in antioxidants and natural gene-repair enzymes. Thus, gene engineering for environmental tolerance may already be within our grasp since it likely simply requires "tuning" the activity of normally existing enzymes. By comparison, the "Quaddies" of Bujold's Falling Free were engineered specifically for weightless environments via replacement of normal human legs with a second pair of arms.
While not human, another example of custom gene engineering can be seen in Dr. Charles E. Gannon's Caine Riordan series. The alien Slaasriithi created specialized sub-species (sub-taxons) to fulfill various tasks in their society. While this level of gene editing is still well outside of current capabilities, the field of tissue engineering is rapidly developing, as shown by the recent announcements of lab-created simple human organs such as the bladder, human ears grown on the backs of laboratory mice ears, "paintable" skin cells for burn repair and efforts to "print" liver and kidney cells. .
What other types of gene engineering might be desirable to adapt humans to space? For this question, we need look no further than our own oceans. Fish and marine mammals provide examples of pressure tolerance, maneuverability in a fluid/weightless environment, temperature extremes, oxygen extremes, sulfur-dependent organisms, alterations of circadian rhythm, and independence from sleep. "Natural antifreeze" copied from Arctic Cod may make the difference in adapting or engineering humans to cryogenic stasis during long space-flights. While we may never reach the state of total freedom to choose alternate bodies as in John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons, many examples—not to mention source materials—for engineering humans for life in space are right here on Earth already.
The Homo Stellaris working track pointed out that current human society very likely lacks the will to tolerate the extreme risks of long-duration space exploration. Our society has become decidedly risk-averse, and has difficulty making (and funding!) long-range and long-term investments in society and technology. Given that currently popular styles of body modification (piercing, tattoos, implants) are viewed with suspicion, how much more so would society frown on gene engineering of self and offspring in ways that produce visible differences from the perceived normal human body?
Arthur C. Clarke described a human society that had become so averse to risk and exploration that they barricaded themselves in a single city in The City and the Stars. While the story involved a clearly advanced technology society (with hints of bioengineering and advanced brain-to-computer interfaces) the human race was clearly senescent and huddled into its safe space to live out the rest of its existence. However, Clarke's City was much like the world of Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel in which Earthers rejected space and many forms of technology, becoming certainly a separate society from the Spacers, and nearly a separate species. In many ways, these two stories are somewhat prescience with respect to current-day attitudes that "there are too many problems at home to waste money in Space!"
It is a common theme in SF that space is a frontier, and in many ways only a small subset of society will embrace the necessity as well as the attraction of that frontier. Larry Niven's Known Space stories distinguish the "flatlanders" who are agoraphobic (and, to a certain extent, technophobic) from the "belters" and "spacers" who leave the home planet for space exploration. As in Jerry Pournelle's High Justice and Exiles to Glory, space may very well be colonized by the misfits or those for whom it is no longer possible to fit into earthbound society. John Ringo's Troy Rising series (Live Free or Die, Citadel, The Hot Gate) tells of individuals who decide to balance significant risk with even greater reward. Any and all of these means may be necessary to identify those individuals who will eventually build a society no longer bound to a single world. Once we do so, it is very likely that the society we build in space will be totally unlike our current experience. Much of SF extrapolates from current political status, but some notable examples of divergent politics between Earth and space colonies are seen in the corporatism of Allen Steele's Clarke County, Space, the capitalism of Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon," the libertarianism of Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold or the implicit socialism of "Star Trek."
Shaping the Future
The science fiction of today can help to shape the future of humanity in space, whether interplanetary or interstellar. We writers have a duty to entertain, but an opportunity to encourage and recruit the next generation of astronauts, scientists, engineers and explorers.
Science Fiction provides experiments of the mind, where we can dream not only about traveling to distant stars, but also of exploring those using bodies not our own. From swimming in a distant sea like dolphins under strange stars, to floating free in the absence of gravity, using all four hands to manipulate controls; from rugged individualists to collectives; SF provides the means to test ideas and gauge public acceptance. Even better, SF provides a means of desensitizing readers to their greatest fears, and encouraging the necessary changes that a truly interstellar society will bring about—the changes that will truly make us Homo stellaris—the People of the Stars!
Copyright © 2016 Dr. Robert Hampson
Dr. Robert Hampson is a neuroscientist with a keen interest in human health in space. He has reviewed research projects for the national Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Space Biomedical Research Institute, and is involved in research on the effects of radiation on the human brain. He is better known to Baen readers and SF convention audiences by his penname "Tedd Roberts." Dr. Hampson and fellow Baen author and space scientist Les Johnson are collaborating on an anthology of science fact and fiction based on many of the issues and concepts mentioned here.