“I say let’s build better astronauts.” Craggy Windman was serious. He was standing on the dais in a slept-in Armani suit, tie undone, disheveled salt-and-pepper beard and talking to an assembly of rocket scientists. (Yes, you had to be a rocket scientist with a NASA badge to get into the room.) He stabbed his pointer in the direction of a graphic on an easel. The graphic was a human male figure, naked and complete.
“Obviously we were not designed for outer space. It’s time to hit the drawing boards.” Windman smiled.
Windman meant tissue engineered astronauts. To the assembled rocket scientists, nearly all of them engineers, the concept was unspecific but understandable. Engineers love to change things. Windman was offering the possibility of changing the most intractable problem of space travel – human beings. Windman is a well-known molecular genetics biologist, making him almost as smart as a fluid dynamics engineer, at least.
“You boys don’t need to look cross-eyed. You already pick astronauts according to a very strict physical profile. Genetic selection.” He paused to throw a severe but cursory glance across the audience. “It’s time to become more systematic, and proactive.”
There were nods in the audience. Nods of affirmation, not nodding-off. Windman had their attention, if only because he was saying this meant the ideas had authority. Authority meant there could be action. Something could get done. If Craggy Windman said there were ways to engineer astronauts, then it could be done.
“Let’s do a quick inventory,” said Windman, “Not all the faulty parts, just the ones we know we can fix or replace.” He walked over to the easel and pointed with a finger at an ear.
“Take the inner ear. Please. It’s a mess in space because there is no up and down. All those little cilia wiggling around in the organ of Corti and nowhere to go; their wiggling means absolutely nothing in space. Worse than nothing, the brain gets confused and you feel sick. We can fix that. A few tweaks of DNA and the inner ear will no longer send confusing signals – a much better solution than drugs.”
Several in the room could be seen tugging an ear. The power of suggestion. Windman continued, “Then there’s the microbiome. For example all those wee beasties living in your gut.” This statement elicited a few discrete burps around the room. “We biologists live with the knowledge that you have more bacterial cells in your body than your own cells – by almost ten to one. Just think what we could do if we change the combination of these cells around, alter their genome, make them do things that are beneficial in space. Like not producing body odor!”
Windman laughed. Some in the audience did to. A few, who were astronauts, conspicuously did not laugh. “No such luck with farting though!” Windman laughed again. Smiles all around.
“Ah, yeah. Well, joking aside. We can do things with bacteria. Not right now, but soon…someday soon. There’s one, just for you guys, it’s a bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans. Tough little critter…can survive radiation doses seven THOUSAND times what you can take. It puts its own DNA back together after radiation blasts it apart. Yours can’t do that. So what we do is snip out the right genes from radiodurans, and we slip them into the human genome. Presto – you can fly through radiation filled space, unharmed. Who knows, maybe you could survive on the surface of Io or Europa?”
Now he had them going. Everyone in that room wanted to go to Europa (the moon of Jupiter, not the old continent). Perhaps a few of them confused the Europas. Windman continued, “Look at that poor forked creature over there…” (pointing at the easel) “…he’s too tall. Bumps his head on the overhead pipes all the time; and he can barely get out the airlock without going feet first. You could lop off a few inches of leg bone – people do that you know – but how much better to get his genes to reduce their expression for height. We don’t make pygmies, mind you, just nicely sized astronauts. The Goldilocks formula, doncha know, not too tall, not too small.”
Windman was on a roll. Visions of NASA funded projects danced in his head…a billion here, a billion there. He could envision banks of genome sequencing machines, humming away, spitting out genomic patterns for almost anything.
His brief reverie was suddenly interrupted when one of the audience stood up and asked, “What about the ethics of human experimentation?” His tone was unfriendly. Several others in the room gasped quietly. Next this fellow might even accuse Windman of playing God. However, Windman was unflappable. He pulled at the lapel of his Armani suit, and then squinted sideways into the audience in the general direction of the accuser. “Well now, young man, I appreciate your concern; but we don’t plan to experiment with people while they’re on Earth. We’ll do it up in space where it’s appropriate…more appropriate…not easy though, it just makes more sense up there.” The words sort of stumbled out.
Windman was not a stupid man. It occurred to him at that moment that he should be careful what he wished for. “Well, there’s a lot you can do to get astronauts better suited to space without tinkering directly with their DNA. Just make more systematic genomic profiles, make them more precise, and then make some selection criteria. They should have just the right DNA for the right physical properties. Of course, they have to propagate…you could select for genes that make them more sexy or virile…or both.”
Now Windman sensed that he had gone too far. The two women in the room were leaving. He thought about adding some good things they might do to the female body, but he held it.
His next words came out somewhat forced, “The day is coming when we’re going to live in space. Like it or not, human beings are built for Earth gravity. That doesn’t work in space. Synthetic biology, tissue engineering, genomic selection, and gene modification – these are tools we will have to use if we want to live in space. The sooner we learn how to use these tools, the better. We need to experiment. Thank you for your attention.”
Windman looked at the easel and thought about taking it with him as he left. He decided to leave it. The applause was finished. So he left as the next speaker was coming in. This speaker’s topic was about replacing astronauts with robots.