Of Machines and Men

I recently published a post about the qualities that make up the perfect astronaut – the most physically and mentally fit men were the desired qualities of America’s first astronauts. The “strapping young Presbyterian lad” is certainly not the ideal of the modern astronaut, but what about future generations? This is also a continuation of a previous post about the end of Space Shuttle program – with the current manned spaceflight program coming to a close, what is the future, if any, for men in space? (Pictured is NASA’s Robonaut. 2001.)

I recently read Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy’s Robots in Space – Launius is senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum and McCurdy is a professor at the American University. The authors present an interesting possible future for men in space. Namely, they propose that manned spaceflight continue almost entirely without men. Their discussion, and this topic as a whole, borders on science fiction; bear with me as I navigate the murky waters of speculation.

As the authors see it, there are three possible paths spaceflight can take in the future: men and machines can fight for dominance in space, men and machines can undertake exploration of the universe together, or robots alone can carry out the future of space exploration with their human counterparts firmly on Earth.

In the 1960s, the rationale for the pursuit of spaceflight was clear – the space race was a manifestation of the Cold War, and certainly not something NASA could shy away from engaging in. Since the end of the Apollo program, manned spaceflight has been yielding increasingly less in comparison to unmanned mission, both those in Earth orbit and those travelling to Mars and beyond.

For their part, both Launius and McCurdy are strong proponents of NASA’s manned spaceflight program. But this view stands in opposition to what they put forth as the main reasons to pursue spaceflight: scientific discovery, commercial applications (such as GPS technology), national security, geopolitical prestige, and the survival of the human race.

Only the survival of the human race requires the participation of men. The other reasons are largely technological and best pursued with robots; without a man to keep alive, the technology becomes simpler and more cost effective.

The propagation of the species is sufficient reason, in the opinion of many spaceflight advocates, for the continuation of a manned program. Theoretically, the human race has a shot at near immortality if we (I use the term loosely) manage to colonize and eventually adapt to other worlds. We wouldn’t be putting all our eggs in one basket. If anything were to threaten our survival on Earth, all won’t be lost.

Launius and McCurdy propose a slightly unconventional future for humanity. What if our descendents who gradually migrate from Earth are merely the last vestiges of humanity wrapped up in a cheaper, easier to maintain technology? If this were the case, a post-biological human would be responsible for ensuring the future of the human race.

This is perhaps best illustrated through example. Sending a manned mission to colonize, say, Mars is not as straightforward as it might seem; it is not quite analogous to crossing an ocean to a new part of the world with adequate supplies for the journey.

The first ships to leave Europe in search of the new world may not have had the most sophisticated technology, but they did have an important advantage over their future interplanetary incarnations – wherever they ended up, they could live off the land.

In a similar vein, scurvy aside, it was fairly easy to travel with a large crew across an ocean. With open air, adequate supplies (with plenty of fresh water and sauerkraut), and agreeable weather, it was likely that at least a large part of the crew would reach their destination, bringing an influx of people to this new land.

Crossing the depths of space to reach a new world is a different affair. It is much harder to keep a crew alive in a spacecraft – sauerkraut won’t give them adequate air to breathe for the half-year voyage to Mars. Once they arrive, they will have to develop new ways to live on a hostile planet in a toxic environment. The long-term effects of a weakened gravitational pull could wreak havoc on their muscles, leaving them too weak to develop the land and living quarters. Yes, the prospect of terraforming Mars exists, but that is best left to its own discussion for the time being.

Say a crew did make it to Mars in one piece, did find a way to grow food and create some sustainable environment from the Martian atmosphere, and someone got sick. Someone on this crew would need to skills to deal with any medical emergency. These first individuals to venture to another world would have to possess every skill imaginable to ensure their survival, from agriculture to engineering to medicine. (Pictured, Mars.)

They would also have to be able to transfer their skills to later generations. Presumably a colonization mission would be a multi-generational affair. How big would the initial crew have to be for a large enough genetic sample to move to Mars?

Selecting this crew could, in a way, be a return to the past ideal astronaut; a group of strapping young men and women representing the best aspects of humanity. It could end up as the Mercury selection process all over again, this time with women.

But what if the mission failed, and this brilliant sample of humanity was unable to grow any plant life on Mars, and couldn’t create a breathable atmosphere for themselves on the planet. Would the mission be little more than sending a small cohort of brilliant and multi-talented men and women to their deaths?

What about Launius and McCurdy’s propose is developing a type of man-machine hybrid, yielding what they call a post-biological future in space. This type of being would solve a lot of the problems associated with long-term manned missions to Mars. Ideally, it would combine the durability and longevity of a robot with the intelligence and reasoning faculties of a man.

This would greatly simplify the mission. Machines require only a power source to live, technologically simplifying the spacecraft and the crews’ subsequent landing and colonization of the new world. Having human intelligence would allow these robots to confidently (if robots have confidence) make the difficult decisions and problem solve their way through any number of difficult situations.

But this super-human would really be a different race, a race of Cyborgs – properly known as cybernetic organism. True man-machine hybrids.

The term “Cyborg” as Launius and McCurdy take it is rooted in Manfred D. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline’s 1960 Astronautics article “Cyborgs in Space”. The authors (Clynes and Kline) point out that modifying a man to meet the standards of a new environment is drastically simpler than altering a planet’s environment to host Earth-base life.

In a sense, such a drastic measure may not be too far off. As Launius and McCurdy point out, Cyborgs in the most literal sense of the term, and interactions with such hybrids, are a common part of our daily lives. Almost everyone knows someone who wears glasses. Dental implants are becoming increasingly common. Surgeons often leave metal supports in the body to repair more serious injuries. Perhaps less common but closer to the true nature of a Cyborg are prosthesis; automated limb analogues truly combine the durability and power of a machine with the intelligence of a human.

But in none of these cases is the “Cyborg” not a human. A man with a prosthetic limb is just that: a man with a prosthesis. The same applies to a man with glasses or with dental implants. They are devices that make his life easier. None of these aids will let him live on another world.

So how far do external aids to men go before humans as Cyborg become a new Cyborg race? What basic functions make a human a human. If a “man” with an artificial cardio respiratory system goes to Mars, is he a man or is he a new breed of man, a cyborg-respirator man?

There are various proposals for the future of men in space that follow this trend of trans-human humans. Men could be biologically modified to increase their life spans allowing a single generation to make good headway into colonizing Mars. Men for the mission could be specially bred with adaptive qualities to different atmospheric compositions. This man would still face the dangers of long duration spaceflight, but would have an easier time tilling and living off the land when he arrived.

A nearly indestructible half-man half-machine with the faculties of human reasoning and logic and the ability to reproduce could be the way to move humans to Mars. But this post-biological human as Launius and McCurdy call it wouldn’t really be a human. It would be a new species. (Pictured in Centaur, NASA’s half-humanoid, half-vehicle robot.)

Theoretically, the modern human would be as alive in its Martian Cyborg descendants as the first fish with arms are alive in the modern human now. We will be little more than a stepping-stone along its evolution, preserved in some digital archives as a curiosity.

It seems with every step closer to Cyborgdom, man’s humanity is lost.

In a similar vein is a recent Times article on NASA’s proposed next-generation lunar missions; the organization is considering sending a humanoid robot to the moon. The purpose of its human shape is predominantly for show: a human analogue would serve to inspire and get a whole new generation of young people interested in the continuation of manned spaceflight.

Inspired young minds aside, the gait of human is one of the more difficult motions to mimic. A rover, or some other more stable robot traveling on wheels instead of feet, would be a much more profitable solution. (Pictured is the rover Sojourner, taken by the Mars Pathfinder lander as it descended onto the surface for the first time.)

Nevertheless, this is an interesting extension of the post-biological human in the most literal sense. This robot would have no human features, save perhaps intelligence. The final step in creating the immortal human may very well be the insertion of artificial intelligence into self-replicating humanoid robots. It is an extreme case, a human progeny in the loosest sense of the word, but it could be the most promising way to ensure the survival of the species.

These proposals for a trans-human or post-biological future in spaceflight are a far cry from the original desire to have humans live beyond the species’ expected life span. The proponents of men in space seem to be clinging to a need to maintain humanity in spaceflight where it doesn’t necessarily need to be while simultaneously finding humanity where it isn’t.

On the other side of the coin are those who favour a purely robotic exploration of space. It may take a rover a year to travel the distance a man could cover in an hour, but the decreased cost of rovers means more of them, giving humans surrogates in further reaches of the solar system than we can currently travel.

Even unmanned flight has a manned component; he is just removed from the mission. If unmanned missions are in a sense manned, and if a robot is some post-biological breed of man, is there a place for man in space at all?

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Launius, Roger and McCurdy, Howard E. Robots in Space. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 2008.

2. Mindell, David. Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight. MIT Press. 2008

3. Launius, Roger and McCurdy, Howard E. Imagining Space: Achievements, Predictions, Possibilities 1950-2050.

4. Shubin, Neil. Your Inner Fish. Vintage Books: New York. 2008.


5 thoughts on “Of Machines and Men

  1. Interesting idea, but if you intend to wrap an organic brain in a robotic housing, you still need to feed the brain. You’d have to have oxygenated blood and lipids and proteins and all kinds of junk like that (IANA biologist). Aside from being vacuum-tolerant and better hardened against radiation, it’s not clear how much is gained by this kind of hybrid form.

    AI-based robots make more sense, but then you face the same PR issues that most unmanned spaceflight has faced. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution.

  2. In the post-Human future imagined by programmer & SF-writer, Greg Egan, two distinct post-Humans explore space in parallel. One group are the Gleisner robots – post-biological humans re-embodied in space-adapted android form – and the other group are soft-ware uploaded humans living in Polises, using remote robotic systems as required, not wedded to any particular physical form. Each poses its own kind of cost/benefit trade-off.

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