will there be a dawn of cyborg astronauts?

February 10, 2010

space station concept

Not too long ago, yours truly wrote another article for Discovery News looking into a solution for some of the most pressing problems with human exploration of the solar system in computer science circles. Our bodies are used to a certain gravity, range of atmospheric pressures and oxygen. They don’t like being bombarded by radiation or be suspended in freefall for months on end. In fact, they tend to fall apart when that happens. The bones become brittle as the body reabsorbs calcium, hearts shrink, radiation damages cells and triggers the growth of tumors, muscles atrophy, and our sense of balance is compromised. If we wanted to cruise through our solar system we’d need to fix all that, but considering what the fix may be, who would volunteer for the job?

So what exactly do we computer geeks propose would temper us for surviving on alien worlds? How about an extensive set of surgeries that would turn astronauts into cyborgs to a point currently seen only in sci-fi books and movies? While the actual technology to do this is still decades away, all the fundamental underpinnings are already there and being used to the benefit of coma and trauma patients. Of course there’s a catch with a series of highly invasive and intensive surgeries for the purpose of space exploration the article points out…

While the benefits to those who suffered serious trauma to the brain, limbs and spine, or suffering from organ failure would be immense, there may be serious pause about healthy individuals who undergo this sort of modification for the sake of traveling to other worlds. People who may never walk again without a prosthetic spine or mechanical legs would volunteer for such procedures because being confined to a bed or a wheelchair for the rest of their lives is a far higher cost than the risks involved with the surgery.

But those who are healthy, strong and very active by our terrestrial standards, might have a hard decision on their hands and doctors would have plenty of second thoughts before replacing major parts of their skeletons and implanting electrodes in their brain.

Realistically, before you start setting up plans for getting to Mars or any other world beyond the Moon, we need to ask ourselves how committed we are to human exploration and how seriously we’re going to take it. There will be a lot of beneficial outcomes from developing rugged technologies to survive deep space travel, but we have to keep in mind that once we start tinkering with some fundamental human anatomy and those who put their bodies on the line for science will never be quite the same again for the rest of their lives, there’s a whole new level of commitment involved and their contributions could never be taken lightly.

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren for Popular Science and Bigelow Airspace ]

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  • Cyborg Bill

    Being a cyborg myself – full-time cardiac pacemaker keeping my hear beating – I can tell you that even those who ” may never walk again without a prosthetic spine or mechanical legs” will have adjustments to make. Prior to the ablation of my AV node my heartrate was not only irregular but irregularly irregular. I had days where I was only half alive. The only chance I had for anything resembling a normal life was to disconnect my heart from my nervous system and trigger it electronically. But that still did not stop me from having body image problems.

    I can imagine highly motivated individuals volunteering to be “modified” to operate in space. I can also imagine them having psychological issues later – especially if the modifications would preclude them having any sort of normal life afterward. I can also see the serious ethical issues involved for physicians in removing healthy, viable tissue and body parts to be replaced with prosthetics. That goes against every instinct of true physicians. I would not trust any surgeon eager to do such procedures on healthy individuals. Surely such persons would have much in common with Mengele.

    Better to look for engineering solutions that allow people to live in microgravity unmodified.

  • Greg Fish

    We can already survive in microgravity, but not without putting our bodies through very intense stress. If we ever go beyond low Earth orbit, we need to start making drastic changes because we simply won’t survive in a harsh alien environments on our own. There’s a lot we can do to limit the potential damage but many of the methods which would be involved are simply not feasible.

    Realistically the question comes down to whether we use genetic engineering, turn astronauts into cyborgs, or stay very close to Earth until we can build giant craft able to simulate 1G gravity. And it seems much more cruel to send a crew to deal with an alien world where they could easily die then to modify them and give the astronauts a fighting chance.