November 14, 2010
Craig Venter To NASA: Engineer Your Astronauts

Gene therapy, cell therapy, and tissue engineering techniques could be used to rebuild astronauts. No mention of robotic prostheses.

Craig Venter has an answer. The biologist told a group of scientists at NASA Ames on Saturday that NASA already does genetic selection when it picks astronauts. He just suggests that the space agency get even more systematic about its process.

“Inner ear changes could allow people to escape motion sickness,” Venter said. “(You could have genes for) bone regeneration, DNA repair from radiation, a strong immune system, small stature, high energy utilization, a low risk of genetic disease, smell receptors, a lack of hair, slow skin turnover, dental decay and so on. If people are traveling in space for their whole lives, they may want to engineer genetic traits for other purposes.”

Okay, this is an obvious and unoriginal idea. But we are approaching the era when it becomes possible to start working on the problem. Tissue engineered astronauts could become common in the 2020s. While I would argue NASA should have higher priorities (asteroid defense most notably) the spin-offs for mainstream medicine would be substantial and of far greater benefit than all the other spin-offs from NASA engineering to date.

Note to NASA: Collect tissue samples of all surviving astronauts and even of people who failed out of the astronaut program for health reasons. The DNA in the tissue samples could be sequenced and compared to the medical records of each astronaut. Which ones had the hardest time adjusting to weightlessness? Which ones had a harder or easier time readjusting once back down on Earth? The genetic variants that contributed to these differences would be good to know.

The US Air Force and Navy could conduct an even bigger research program into pilot performance and genetics because orders of magnitude more people have become military pilots than astronauts. Sports performance research has an overlap with NASA's needs as well. So does aging research in areas such as osteoporosis (bone loss) and sarcopenia (muscle loss). How to maintain bone and muscle mass in space for long periods?

I would argue that space exploration really needs rejuvenation therapies. The cost of moving humans around in space is so great that their lasting decades longer in young bodies would offer great advantages in, say, a Mars colony. The first generation would stay young enough long enough to produce lots of offspring, pass on their many skills (colonists would likely be chosen in part for their polymath skills), and do lots of work.

Interplanetary travel would absolutely require rejuvenation therapies to minimize the costs (and considerable risks) of training new generations. Also, why start out on a few hundred year trip across the stars only to die a couple of centuries for reaching a destination?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 November 14 12:22 PM  Space Colonization

PacRim Jim said at November 14, 2010 6:58 PM:

Who needs human. Strong AI would be perfect (though along the way it might decide not to come back).

TheBigHenry said at November 14, 2010 7:44 PM:

They aren't supposed to come back.

Chris T said at November 15, 2010 9:09 AM:

Personally, I'd rather they figure out how to 'engineer' their current programs so they don't have several billion dollar cost overruns in their programs:

DonM said at November 15, 2010 12:16 PM:

Ask for volunteers, both for the genetic tests to be astronauts, and for the people to provide funding.

What? People might not sign up for one or the other? Then don't have a space program.

comatus said at November 15, 2010 12:49 PM:

It may not be an original idea, but that is a very original way to spell "prostheses."
Stick with the Future, kid. There is no Attic Greek there.

Dowlan Smith said at November 15, 2010 7:07 PM:

5 comments and no one mentioned "Gattaca"?

Cameron said at November 16, 2010 4:36 PM:

What they need is, and will eventually likely use, is advanced synthetic biology to grow large ships and fuel cheaply. Biology can survive in extremes, but there's no need to expose the machinery to unnecessary harshness. A suitably ship can have enough matter, along with magnetic field, to shield from radiation as well as provide artificial gravity through centrifugal action.

Anonymous said at December 7, 2010 12:47 AM:

As soon as I started reading this, I thought: That's what aliens look like.

Randall Parker said at December 7, 2010 9:21 PM:

Great point about aliens. Of course they'll be genetically engineered. Hadn't thought of that.

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