I have asked that question many times in the last few years, as I see more and more people becoming cyborgs through technological enhancements to their bodies. Howard McCurdy and I also addressed this issue in the last two chapters of our book Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).
Of course, in Star Trek: The Next Generation the intrepid crew of the United Star Ship Enterprise repeatedly faced the Borg, cyborgs intent on assimilating the biological creatures of the universe into their collective consciousness and thereby destroying individuality. When considering the far future and the potential for humans to colonize other bodies in the solar system and beyond, perhaps humanity will adapt to the space environment through modifications of the human body.
This idea was first broached by scientists Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in a 1960 NASA study. They remarked: “Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space.” To fly into space (none had yet done so at the time of their article), humans would take with them all of the elements of earthly existence, supplemented by devices to protect themselves from hazards like radiation that did not penetrate the Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic shield. To Clynes and Kline, this seemed unnecessarily complicated.
They added, “Artificial atmospheres encapsulated in some sort of enclosure constitute only temporizing, and dangerous temporizing at that, since we place ourselves in the same position as a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land. The bubble all too easily bursts.” To resolve this problem, they suggested that the astronaut attempt “partial adaptation to space conditions, instead of insisting on carrying his whole environment along.” They proposed a variety of modifications, many mechanical in nature, which would allow humans to withstand radiation, the absence of atmospheric oxygen, and other hazards of space. They coined the term “cyborg” to describe this adaptation.
Since that time, NASA has refrained from serious consideration of the ideas offered by Clynes and Kline, although a few studies in the 1960s investigated these possibilities. But what of the future, especially the distant future? To date, human presence in space has consisted of what might be characterized as extended camping trips, often a week or more but rarely exceeding a half year in length. Yet space advocates continue to propose far lengthier stays, from planetary outposts to solar system colonization.
Humans are not well suited for very long stays beyond Earth, especially at locations whose temperature conditions, radiation levels, and gravity differ markedly from those found on this planet. Technology and culture favor a role for human spaceflight that under the most favorable circumstances appears limited to excursions to the Moon and perhaps a remote outpost on Mars, with increasingly autonomous craft surveying the remainder of the solar system and beyond.
If colonization of the solar system, and the rest of the galaxy, is truly desirable, will it be done by Homo sapiens? Or will robots prevail? In undertaking this cosmic venture, humans might change, especially if very long periods of time are involved. Humans born and raised on extraterrestrial locations would change naturally in response to different terrestrial or gravity conditions. Given advances in biotechnology, others might reengineer themselves.
In many ways we are already there, with millions of people enjoying a better quality of life, or in some cases life itself, through the incorporation of pacemakers, joint and limb replacements, cochlear hearing implants, artificial lenses, artificial organs, and a potential list of even more sophisticated genetic and biotechnological enhancements. Future possibilities are astonishing.
The implications of such developments for the future of space exploration are fascinating. They are made more interesting when one considers the degree to which humans might change during the millions of years available to colonize the galaxy. Who knows what derivations of the human form could emerge? Such developments would alter the traditional debate over space exploration in ways that provide a new paradigm quite different than the one casting humans with all of their biological limitations into the extraterrestrial realm. Such developments might make space travel more attainable, though in unconventional ways.
Is there a Borg in our future? Possibly. How might we remake the human body to more effectively meet the rigors of space exploration? Should we even attempt it?