In the sixteen years I’ve been writing Centauri Dreams, I’ve often used written science fiction to illustrate points about our ongoing science discussions. This also gives me a chance to poke around in my collection of old SF magazines, always a pleasure, as I’ve been collecting them since i was a boy and they go back to the glory days of newsstand fiction, which extended well beyond SF to mysteries, westerns and the various other genres defined by the pulp magazines of the early 20th Century.
What a kick, then, to read a short story by Robert E. Hampson and find a starship named Centauri Dreams! Not only that, but Robert, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, gives me a nod by naming the orbital hub through which travelers pass in the story ‘Gilster Station.’ Thank you, Robert!
The story is “Those Left Behind,” which appears in the collection Stellaris: People of the Stars, a volume Hampson edited with Les Johnson. First published in 2019, the book now emerges in a new paperback edition from Baen Books. Hampson’s story is provocative, dealing with issues of human/machine augmentation that long-haul spaceflight may require. When humans reach the nearest stars, will they be human as we know the term, or an emerging branch of the species in charge of its own evolution?
Image: Wake Forest’s Robert Hampson, author and physiologist, who continues to explore the human response to space exploration. Credit: Wake Forest University.
The great question hanging over all this is whether there are human traits that would endure despite not just mental but physical transformation. We can imagine, as Hampson does, the reaction among those who will find augmented humanity a step too far. Here the question disrupts a family even as they look toward a colony at Proxima Centauri and ponder what it will take to get people there, all the while dealing with an emerging movement of those committed to ending human modification:
“You thought because I didn’t meet your expectation of a human — that I was bioengineered for low gravity — that I would be weak?” Sandy stood over the intruder, body language signaling anger and rage. “You argue about biological purity, about ‘unaltered’ humans, yet you live with modern medicine, vaccines, gene therapies and corrective surgeries.”…
“…simple spectrography,” Mace said, dismissively. “Diaminotoluene in the hair means hair color. Probably to cover the gray and change his appearance. Fine scars around the nose and eyes from plastic surgery — either vanity or to fool facial recognition. There’s a scleral scar and artificial lens in his right eye.”
Sandy practically snarled. “So, correcting your vision and changing your appearance with surgery is okay for you — just not for the people who are trying to give mankind a future?”
Some of us started reading science fiction in the first place because a good writer can pick up an idea like this and rotate it in and out of our present and into the future, forcing the big questions that technology enables, or perhaps demands. I know Robert Hampson from our encounters at conferences, the last one being the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop’s 2017 symposium in Huntsville, where he moderated a panel on human life off-planet and a working track on the role of security and intel in space. “Those Left Behind” reminds me why he has become a go-to guy for science fiction writers pondering just what homo stellaris will be.
Where Intelligent Life Goes
Stellaris: People of the Stars collects fiction as well as non-fiction essays on just the matters addressed above, the changes that expansion in the universe may force upon our species. Although not limited to authors at the event, the book draws on many discussions at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop’s 2016 symposium, which was held in Chattanooga, TN, and included a working track on the transition of the human body and mind to the interstellar environment. I should note that the organization now does business as the Interstellar Research Group at irg.space.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know many of the authors within the volume, but I’ve only had one chance to meet Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, though to be honest that was just a brief introduction at one of the Breakthrough Starshot meetings. But revisiting Robert Hampson’s story gives me a chance to talk about Rees’ essay “The Future of Intelligent Life in the Cosmos,” from the same volume. Rees is intrigued, to say the least, by exobiology, and is the author of On the Future: Prospects for Humanity (Princeton 2018), among numerous other books and essays.
Image: Martin Rees, astrophysicist, cosmologist and Britain’s Astronomer Royal.
One of the changes that have become apparent about public perception of these matters in the past two decades has been the commonplace discovery of exoplanets, which have gone from being a curiosity to an almost daily news item, their wide range a matter for comment and speculation. Rees speaks of this as being ‘morale-boosting,’ which it is to those anxious to identify other life in the universe, but a biosignature, perhaps detectable in a few decades, is a different thing entirely from a technosignature, and it’s an open question how humanity would react to the latter.
The challenge of estimating human reaction is that, as the Hampson story explores, humanity itself may be on the cusp of change, which may include not only genetic modification but augmentation through artificial intelligence. Thus biotech looms large as we make decisions about the relationship we choose to have with technology. In space, we continue to mine data from Cassini, New Horizons and Rosetta, even as we look forward to exploring the Jovian satellites through missions like the European Space Agency’s JUICE, with its intention of orbiting Ganymede, and NASA’s Europa Clipper. A key fact: We’re getting better and better at robotic exploration. The question this forces is inevitable. Says Rees:
The next step will be the deployment of robotic fabricators in space that can build large structures. For example, giant successors to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will have immense gossamer-think mirrors assembled under zero gravity. These structures will further enhance our imaging of exoplanets as well as the cosmos. Will there be a role for humans?
Good question. Rees readily admits the powers of human observation (“It cannot be denied that NASA’s Curiosity, trundling across a giant Martian crater, may have missed startling discoveries that no human geologist could overlook”). Even so, he makes the case that the startling advance of machine learning coupled with sensor technology, not to mention the cost differential between manned and unmanned missions, means that the case for manned spaceflight is less clear-cut than it was a few decades ago.
While we explore the question, the near-term future for humans in space hinges on what Rees calls “inspirationally led private companies” who will engage in manned launches in terms of competition. This is a high-risk environment that reminds me of the early days of aviation, when records fell almost daily as pilots pushed their equipment higher and faster than ever before. Such adventurers may well wind up reaching other nearby worlds, where the changeable nature of humanity comes into play:
The pioneering explorers will be unsuited to their new habitat, sustaining a more compelling incentive to adjust themselves compared to those of us still on Earth. They will harness the powerful genetic and cybernetic technologies that will be developed in future decades. These techniques will be heavily regulated on Earth as well as on prudential and ethical grounds; however, settlers on Mars will exceed the clutches of regulators. Therefore, we should wish them luck in modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments, as this might be the first step toward divergence into a new species. Ultimately, it will be these brave space voyagers who lead the post-human era.
I think about this often in terms of longer-range missions into the interstellar medium. Assume for a moment not one but many habitats in space, O’Neill-type arcologies housing larger and larger numbers of people in coming centuries who find the prospect of an engineered vs. a natural world enticing. If this happens, surely one day the idea of simply untethering from the Sun’s gravitational influence will strike some as irresistible. Imagine such a worldship nudging out into the Oort Cloud, to exploit the abundant cometary resources available there, and perhaps eyeing passage to another star. How many centuries will it take for such beings to diverge from our species?
So that maybe we don’t reach another stellar system and meet the aliens. Maybe the explorers who, after centuries or millennia, arrive at Wolf 1061c or Proxima Centauri b, are the aliens, at least in terms of their differentiation from ourselves.
Staying Human Closer to Home
We may have to make changes to our physiology if we plan to create a long-term human presence in space, by which I mean actual people living full-time off-world, either on planets or in the kind of structures I’ve mentioned above. And we can’t rule out the possibility that the advantages of electronic intelligence will simply be too great, causing our descendants to largely continue interstellar exploration with robotics of a kind so advanced over what we have today that they do indeed seem magical. I imagine Arthur C. Clarke would be right at home with a prospect like that.
It’s striking, then, to see how swiftly we dismiss some of the major issues regarding humanity in space when we look at what does seem feasible soon, a trip to Mars. In particular, I can remember a presentation that Robert Hampson makes about gravity and its lack. Mark Shelhamer, in the same Stellaris volume, goes into the question, a good thing because we’ve only begun to examine it seriously. It’s simply not enough to put astronauts in an environment like the ISS and take notes. We also have to ask what happens to humans longer-term, colonists on Mars, say, who plan to live out their lives in 0.38 Earth gravity. Does the body ultimately adapt or not?
Some of these issues have already come up in manned spaceflight close to home. We’ve learned about problems in visual acuity from extended ISS stay, evidently due to fluid pressure changes that move toward the back of the eye over time, distorting the shape of the eye and distorting its optical properties. Shelhamer (Johns Hopkins) is well suited to examine the questions this raises. He has worked with NASA on sensorimotor adaptation to spaceflight; he also is an advisor to the commercial spaceflight industry, and has served as chief scientist for the NASA Human Research program at JSC.
Image: Mark Shelhamer examining zero-g aboard NASA’s ‘vomit comet,’ a modified Boeing jet that simulates the weightlessness of the ISS. Creedit: Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Gravity is, of course, only one of the factors he discusses in his essay, but I focus on it because research on the matter seems so crucial and yet relatively unexplored. We do know to provide exercise venues for orbiting astronauts to maintain bone integrity and cardiovascular function as well as keeping muscles tuned for eventual return to Earth. But we still have much to learn, including the vital question of bone mineral density as it applies to bone strength and the interrelation between the two in internal structure.
ISS astronauts get about two hours of exercise per day per person (which also offers a mental break from the various demands of the job). So you could say that the ISS is a laboratory in gravitational studies impacting physiology, but we need a better one. Delivering a debilitated crew to the Martian surface serves no one well, so we need to find out whether the spacecraft that carry our astronauts there will need artificial gravity. We can induce the effect by rotating the craft in a variety of configurations, but it clearly has a huge impact upon design. How much artificial gravity do we need?
What we need in the short term is an orbiting laboratory that can explore these questions, a structure designed specifically to treat human issues in space and in particular questions of human performance under varying levels of g. In an ideal universe we would manage artificial gravity by using constant acceleration to target, with a turnaround at the halfway point. Lacking that capability, our best bet is rotation inducing a centripetal force proportional to the distance from the rotation axis. We’ll want to vary artificial gravity through spinning.
That, of course, raises a slew of other questions. Just how much artificial gravity do we need, and at what level? It’s possible that parts of a long-haul spacecraft might rotate while others do not, so that the crew might sleep, for example, in zero g and work much of the time in an artificial gravity environment. We know that many of the problems of bone and muscle mass loss could be avoided through artificial gravity, but we don’t have much experience with the vestibular system involving the balance organs in the inner ear, which is used to orient a person within inertial reference frames.
We don’t, in other words, know enough about rotating environments, and we need to explore how to mitigate their effects. We also need to consider, as Shelhamer goes on to point out, that weightlessness may have beneficial effects of its own. Here the psychological effects of space upon the crew may come into play. The famous ‘overview effect,’ explored by Frank White in his book of the same name in 1998, may partially be the result of the zero gee environment. It would be useful to explore possibilities that involve rotating only part of the spacecraft, providing living quarters that include artificial gravity for at least part of the astronaut working day.
The prospect of physiological transformation is something we also need to learn a great deal more about. Let me quote Shelhamer on this intriguing point:
Faced with a dramatically different environment — altered gravity level, unfamiliar atmospheric pressure and composition, different magnetic field, to name a few — evolutionary processes in the human organism might be accelerated. Under such circumstances, epigenetic alterations might take on a larger role in the heritability of acquired traits. Whatever the mechanism, settlers will likely be faced with the problems inherent in rapid change — only this will involve changes to the humans themselves. The possibility that some of these changes will be undesired — and could interact with other changes to the overall detriment of the person — should not be ignored.
Do we acknowledge such adaptive alterations if they begin, or do we try to slow them down? In other words, do we willfully let our species branch into new physiological directions, or do we try to mitigate the possibility? Here we also need to look at the role of genetic modification, about which we need to be cautious. As Shelhamer says, “in a space-settler setting where there is precious little backup capability (you can’t go home again) even subtle second-order effects can take on outsized significance.”