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Space historian sees cyborgs in our future

Humans, and the machines they use to explore space, are going to evolve together in ways that are hard to predict, said Roger Launius, a space historian.
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Fifty years after the dawn of the space age, hundreds of people have flown into space. A dozen of those left their boot marks on the moon’s surface, and several nations now are planning to send astronauts back to the moon and then beyond. So you would think the expansion of humanity ever deeper into the cosmos is a sure bet.

But the notion that human explorers are destined to become an interstellar species is far from a sure thing as far as Roger Launius is concerned.

More likely, humans, and the machines they use to explore space, are going to evolve together in ways that are hard to predict at this early stage in the opening of the space frontier, said Launius, an eminent space historian and chair for the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of space professionals at the Space Technology and Applications International Forum in Albuquerque, Launius said humans are destined to become a multi-planetary species, but that word may take on a whole new meaning as time evolves.

Given that there will be the first child born on the moon, as well as Mars, will that person be a Homo sapiens, he asked. Could the differences of gravity, radiation exposure mean those children would be unable to return to Earth?

“I think that’s problematic,” Launius said, and in some respects this might be an evolutionary road not unlike that taken by amphibian creatures that departed their water world to become land creatures.

“There is the possibility of the evolution of human species into something different,” Launius said. He and fellow space researcher, Howard McCurdy of the American University in Washington, have authored a book on the subject to be published later this year.

Electronics/digital revolution
One area where all spaceflight visionaries of the past failed to make meaningful predictions was in the rapidly advancing capabilities of robotics and electronics, Launius said.

For example, when noted science writer Arthur C. Clarke envisioned geosynchronous telecommunications satellites in 1945, he believed that they would require humans working on board a manned space station because he thought it would be necessary to change the vacuum tubes.

“Some of the most forward-thinking spaceflight advocates … utterly failed to anticipate the electronics/digital revolution then just beginning,” the space historian noted.

“With the rapid advance of electronics in the 1960s, however, some began to question the role of humans in space exploration. It is much less expensive and risky to send robot explorers than to go ourselves. This debate reached saliency early on and became an important part of the space policy debate by the latter 20th century,” Launius said. Presently, there is a significant merger of humans and machines into something different and enhanced, he said.

Self-induced transformations
Launius said one possibility is the evolution of the human species into something different via self-induced transformations: Create an Earthlike environment for astronauts to live in … or change the astronauts in ways that they will be more capable of surviving in new and different regions of space.

For the latter, that smacks of a cybernetic organism, or cyborg, whereby some physiological processes are assisted or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices.

“We may already be cyborgs,” Launius pointed out, looking out into an audience filled with people wearing glasses, hearing aids and sporting hip and knee replacements — not to mention those clinging to their hand-held mobile phones and other communication devices.

Projecting hundreds of years into the future, Launius said he believed that it is likely humans will evolve in ways that cannot be fathomed today, into a form of species perhaps tagged Homo sapiens astro. “Will our movement to places like the Moon and Mars hasten this evolutionary process? … I don’t know the answer,” he said.

In closing, Launius suggested that the old paradigm for human space exploration — ultimately becoming an interstellar species — “is outmoded and ready for replacement.”