Volodymyr Usov is a technology entrepreneur from Ukraine who served as chairman of the State Space Agency of Ukraine in 2020 and 2021. He is the co-founder of Kurs Orbital, a start-up developing an autonomous rendezvous and docking system for future on-orbit mission services.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is realistic about the dangers of putting humans on Mars.
“If a strenuous and dangerous journey where you might not come back alive but it’s a wonderful adventure sounds appealing, Mars is the place,” Musk said in 2021. That’s a Mars ad! A bunch of people will probably die in the beginning.”
As we see significant progress with SpaceX’s spacecraft, despite numerous explosions during tests — an acceptable risk for an innovative, boundary-pushing spacecraft — the prospect of its successful first orbital launch is becoming an increasingly tangible reality. Elon Musk’s vision of missions to Mars and the establishment of initial settlements thus begins to go beyond the realm of dreams and ventures into the realm of achievable goals.
So this progress invites us to delve deeper into understanding the most significant challenges we face. These challenges go beyond rocket technology, affecting our biology and fundamentally challenging our identity as a species.
Related: Watch SpaceX launch a starship to Mars in this gorgeous new animation
When the Starship is ready, will we?
On Mars, a hostile and radiation-soaked, lifeless world, landing and landing is just the thing for humans to be alive, not to mention the colossal challenge of survival. It resembles a heavenly tomb rather than a garden for life. But some thinkers are beginning to wonder: Could we create a new iteration of humanity, genetically engineered to withstand the harsh realities of space travel? In other words, could astronauts be transformed on a genetic level to prepare them for another world?
To clarify, no one is currently raising a genetically enhanced astronaut in a lab. At least not to my knowledge. Yet ideas once confined to the realm of science fiction are materializing into tangible concepts. We know that radiation, a powerful danger in space, can cause cancer and other serious diseases. However, Chinese scientists have already advanced the genetic modification of human embryonic stem cells to show supernatural resistance to radiation.
Because the space is flooded with energetic particles that can damage DNA, the researchers suggested adding more copies of p53, a gene known as the “guardian of the genome” because of its role in preventing cancer. Elephants with their excess copies of p53 rarely succumb to cancer. Perhaps our future astronauts should follow suit.
The first gene editing experiments aboard the ISS demonstrated the feasibility of such a concept and demonstrated efficacy CRISPR technology in space. This offers a promising sign of potential breakthroughs to come. There is no consortium focused on genetic engineering for astronauts yet, but it may be time to consider starting one.
Failing to protect a person bound for another planet when we have the means would be truly unethical, not the other way around.
In an effort to protect astronauts, we may also encounter opportunities for “improvement.” Currently, the idea of gene editing to improve intellect or perfect vision is fiercely opposed. Still, if we’re being honest, NASA already selects individuals based on similar criteria. Out of 12,000 applicants, only 10 were selected for it astronaut class in 2021 train for future missions. You may be familiar with the movie “Gattaca”, in which only genetically superior individuals were allowed to travel to Titan, while those deemed genetically inferior looked on with envy. Like many compelling science fiction, this 1997 film is not far from reality.
When considering survival in space, the genetic concept of “fitness” becomes critical. It does not refer to physical fitness, but to the ability of an organism to thrive and reproduce in a given environment.
In space or on Mars, human fitness is dangerously low. Consider an astronaut encased in a suit, environmental conditions are carefully controlled to keep the wearer alive. But the suit exists only to mimic the Earth environment to which our genes have adapted over millions of years of evolution.
Scientists have begun to identify genes that could improve our ability to survive. You are lucky enough to have the EPAS1 variant common in Tibetans that allows this better survival at lower oxygen levels? What about a natural mutation that leads to lean, robust muscles, potentially compensating for the atrophy of space travel? Some individuals even carry a DNA variant associated with superior problem-solving skills and low anxiety, a trait that would greatly aid Matt Damon’s character in his quest to survive on Mars in “The Martian.”
The chances of possessing all of these beneficial mutations are astronomically low. This is the reason why we might consider actively incorporating these features, or using them next generation gene editing technology. George Church, a prominent figure in the field of genetics at Harvard Medical School, already does compiled a list rare variants of protective genes relevant to alien environments, including increased resistance to pain, resistance to viruses, reduced risk of diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and even low odor production.
The Church assumes that we are already transhumanists because we have evolved to the point where our ancestors would barely recognize us. And his argument carries considerable weight. In our quest for space, we face not only the challenges of spacecraft engineering, but also the equally complex field of biological engineering. To survive the harsh environment of space, we must not only adapt, but also evolve, and quickly. We cannot rely solely on natural selection, a slow process requiring large populations and millions of years of evolution in a favorable climate—a luxury we will not have in space.
If we want to not only survive but thrive in space, we need to learn how to procreate outside of planet Earth.
IN studies Matthew R. Edwards, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, explored several strategies for habitation in space. The conventional model of space colonies, Mars serving as an archetypal example, has been compared to the somewhat unorthodox concept of embryo colonization (ESC). This bold model envisions the transfer of human embryos to alien colonies, where their development into adulthood would be overseen by a combination of ectogenesis and robotics.
Interestingly, the analysis suggests that this futuristic paradigm holds more promise for ensuring the long-term survival of our species in space compared to conventional colonial facilities.
Traditional space colonies are burdened by a number of significant obstacles. Among the problems we face on Mars are the lack of CO2 and not knowing the gravity of Mars, which is approximately 38% that of Earth. These conditions are complicated by an inhospitable environment saturated with potentially lethal radiation. This makes such colonies less than optimal platforms for humanity’s aspiration to venture beyond our home planet, and even more challenging to support a new generation across the vast expanse of our solar system. It seems highly unlikely that we could rely on our Earth-known methods of natural procreation in such harsh alien conditions.
Recently, we have seen remarkable progress in the early prototypes of ectogenesis, a process that allows a fetus to develop completely outside the human body. The concept was first proposed a century ago by renowned Cambridge biologist JBS Haldane. The futuristic reproductive science he envisioned, while optimistic, was eerily recast into a dystopian landscape in the opening chapters of Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Today, a rethinking of this perspective seems necessary, considering the integral role it could play in our long-term survival in space.
From hope to hesitation and back to light.
Several international research groups are currently making breakthroughs with fetal life support systems. These promising inventions could potentially support the life of extremely premature babies in a womb-like environment. Research teams from the US, Australia and Japan have created innovative artificial wombs such as Bio bag and the EVE platform. These have had some success with highly preterm fetal lambs. At the same time, there is a Dutch team investigating perinatal life support (PLS) system using advanced simulation technology.
Significant progress has been made in mimicking the conditions of the uterus during late pregnancy. However, our understanding of the early weeks remains limited. This is due to the immense difficulty in observing events in utero, along with past limitations of research involving human embryo development outside the womb for more than 14 days. These regulations are now being relaxed and allow for a case-by-case assessment. This paves the way for advances in artificial womb technology, although scientific hurdles to conceiving a viable human child outside the body remain.
In one such case, scientists from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science succeeded growth of mouse embryos ex utero for about 11 to 12 days, slightly over half of their gestation period. While these embryos have developed organs and limbs, the team continues to face the challenge of extending the process by half.
This is where technology companies like Colossal Biosciences can play a transformative role. Primarily known for its pioneering work on mammoth extermination and other near-science fiction research, Colossal could revolutionize the field of ectogenesis. Colossal CEO Ben Lamm does acknowledged that widespread extinction would require ectogenesis rather than traditional surrogacy. For the sake of social acceptance, he prefers to use the term “ex utero” rather than “artificial womb”.
With its formidable team of top researchers and scientists, led by Lamm co-founder George Church, Colossal is a strong contender to realize full ectogenesis and artificial womb technology. Having recently secured a $250 million investment at a $1 billion valuation, the company has the financial resources to match its innovative spirit.
After 4 billion years, it is the end of the beginning
It takes a special kind of genius to take down Mammoth Wooly and Dodo to raise hundreds of millions in VC, and let me tell you, Ben Lamm has that genius in spades. Figures like Elon Musk, Ben Lamm and George Church have every potential to redefine our limits. Using genetic modification and ectogenesis, they could equip humanity for the unique challenges of the space environment and aid our transformation into a truly space-faring civilization. In doing so, we become the architects of our own evolution.
Once upon a time, people like Copernicus and Darwin relegated humanity from the focal point of the universe to a mere product of evolution on an insignificant planet. But in the light of our advanced understanding, we see that we are more than just another link in the chain of evolution. We are a historical novelty, able to lead the path of evolution itself.
In due time we will expand our civilization to the final frontier and overcome our evolutionary limitations through technological and biological improvements. As of now, humanity remains the only positively confirmed form of intelligence. Therefore, our primary goal must be to preserve the existence of this intelligent life in the universe.
So our genome becomes more than just a blueprint for life on Earth. It transforms into the genome of the cosmos, a testament to humanity’s adaptability and resilience.