Featured image: http://scottr5680.deviantart.com/art/Biodome-375817102
As appealing as the idea of deep space exploration sounds, we as humans may not actually be at the most advantageous point in our abilities to undergo exploration at a larger scale. Not only is space travel technologically challenging, but we humans in our current biological form aren’t necessarily equipped to handle the conditions of space or the celestial bodies we wish to explore. We are susceptible to the harsh radiation in the vacuum of space, we cannot respire in most atmospheres, and we probably couldn’t handle some of the unfamiliar physical conditions on most planets such as variations in gravity, or extreme variations in temperature. This however should not stop us from thinking creatively about how we approach space travel. There are many alternative “modes of transportation” for example, and there is always the possibility of uniquely altering ourselves in preparation for conditions that are not familiar to us.
One way in which we already do most of our space travel is through robots. We’ve sent countless probes throughout the solar system to act as extensions to our biological senses. Through these probes we’re able to gauge everything from atmospheric conditions to unique geological features. Robots act as proxies until we can muster the resources to actually send humans to distant locations, but sending humans to remote places in space involves much higher costs and risks. For now, robots may be our best ticket into space. It may not seem like the ideal avenue, but consider some modern-day technologies that could make this more exciting. We are now living in the age of virtual reality (VR). Many people today have had the chance to experience what it’s like to be fully immersed in virtual worlds. As graphics processing improves, the immersion will only become more realistic. VR has the potential to give individuals the ability to experience someone else’s life, whether that be a fictional video game character or an actual person with a camera attached to their head in some way. Anyone will be able to strap on a VR headset and know what it’s like to be someone on the other side of the world.
This VR technology feature could be expanded for use with various space probes and robotic rovers that we have stationed throughout the solar system. One day we could retrofit a space probe with a 360 degree camera and send it orbiting around all of the Jovian planets. People back on Earth could connect to these probes and experience what it’s like to float over Saturn’s rings in high-definition. Rovers stationed on Mars could give Earthlings a panoramic view of the Valles Marineris.
Robotic rovers today are mostly designed to operate like vehicles, but looking further into the future, we may begin building humanoid robots. Robots that are modeled after humans will open up the possibility of an even more immersive and unique exploratory experience. Using a combination of VR technology and haptic feedback gear, a human operator could jack into a humanoid robot stationed on some distant world and take complete control of it. Instead of only being a passive observer limited to what a camera is showing them, people would now be able to take full control of the humanoid robot and move around on their own free will. With the haptic feedback devices and motor sensory apparatus, the operator could feel the ground beneath them, and walk the robot vast distances. This would be very useful for scientists who are looking for more flexibility and control over which objects-of-interest to investigate. This sort of “mind transfer” technology is similar to what James Cameron showed us in the movie Avatar, but instead of inhabiting a living body, it’d be a machine body being inhabited through telepresence. Avatar-like technology would most likely be limited for use by high-ranked scientists or astronauts at first, but soon-after this technology could be developed for commercial use. One day it may be possible to purchase your very own avatar robot for off-world use. Instead of sending ships full of humans to distant celestial bodies, we may just pack shipping freights full of avatars set to go online whenever the Earth-based operator logs in. From there you could navigate around any permissible zone designated for your avatar to use. It would be akin to logging into a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft or Second Life, but instead of logging into a virtual world you are logging into a physical world far away.
Deep-space travel and extra-planetary habitation may also be more practical if we humans master genetic engineering and alter our own biology. Today when it comes to extra-planetary colonization, like on Mars for example, the most commonly proposed strategy is to terraform the planet, which is a process by which humans alter a planet’s climate to such a way that it eventually becomes more suitable for human habitation. While this idea is tantalizing, many opponents see this as another example of humanity’s anthropocentric tendency to modify everything into something suitable for humans. Some environmentalists think that since humans tend to do more harm than good to their own planet, it may be best if we don’t go around changing other planets in ways that may be detrimental to the planet in the long run. Instead, it has also been proposed that instead of adapting a planet to humans, humans adapt to the planet itself. Genetic engineering provides the opportunity to do so. Like the Ousters in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos, humanity may expand into a variety of different forms which offer unique, adaptive ways to survive on seemingly inhospitable planets. We could alter our metabolic pathways to allow us to survive off different nutrients. We could alter our respiratory system to allow us to breath in different atmospheres. We can alter our muscles and skeletal systems to allow for comfort on varying levels of gravity. Humans would be able to choose where they want to live and adapt accordingly. In the distant future we may see dazzling diversity in human sub-types. Humans with wings optimized for drifting through clouds on a very low gravity planet; humans with lungs living in water worlds; people with genetically augmented skin meant to help them survive extreme cold or heat. The possibilities are endless. Some groups of humans may decide to isolate from the rest of humanity, and future encounters with these groups might have them mistaken for actual aliens! Fortunately, a quick genetic test would place them rightfully back on the human evolutionary tree.
Genetic manipulation may not be the only way in which we alter ourselves as a space-faring civilization. Instead of remaining biological, we may choose to augment ourselves with technology. Swapping out certain organs for machine counterparts may prove just as effective if not more so in optimizing us for specific conditions. In a more extreme case, we may be able to manufacture special exosuits that supply all the variation needed to survive on a certain planet. This suit might be able to rapidly adapt to changing conditions in real-time. This multi-functioning suit could eliminate the need to radically alter humans in their current form.
In the end however, it could be that of all of these options will be available to us. Depending on your preferences you might be able to choose one or a combination of all of these adaptations that would allow you to travel just about anywhere in space you desire.
Getting humans into deep space will be tricky business. Colonizing the solar system and eventually other star systems will very likely involve non-traditional methods of travel and adaptability. While some of the ideas discussed here may seem implausible or very far off, others seem within our current capability. Using robots as proxies for instance is basically what we already do, but with existing technology such as VR, we already have the recipe for some very engaging exploration via Avatar-like telepresence. Also, augmenting our current biology with inorganic technological components may be more ethical and within reach than radical genetic manipulation. Still, it’s exciting to think about all the ways in which we could explore space. With such a variety of potential avenues – many of which were not even discussed here – space exploration has never seemed so doable.