Cyborg Astronaut Space Race Heats Up
Astronauts need to wear protective gear to venture out into space. Not only do their lives depend on the spacesuit working properly, but they must limit their time in space because the suits don’t provide much radiation shielding.
Credit: NASA

Cyborgs — human beings merged with machines — are a staple of science fiction.

Star Wars' Darth Vader, Star Trek's Borg, and the Cybermen of Dr. Who are variations on this theme — and it's no coincidence they're all "bad guys." Cyborgs symbolize one of our greatest fears: that over time, we will become so enmeshed in our technology that we lose our humanity.

The real-life application of cyborg science is far from horrifying. Medical technology has developed implantable heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, hearing aids, and even computer chips for the brain to treat depression and Parkinson's disease. In that sense, we are already on the path to becoming cyborgs.

Transhumanists believe that the development of such technology will lead one day to "Human version 2.0" — an upgrade of the human body that not only eliminates many of the problems that plague us, but improves upon the basic human design. For instance, some transhumanists envision a day when the human brain will be re-wired with computer chips, allowing us to think, learn and communicate with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

There's an ethical leap between using technology to help people overcome disabilities, and using it to "improve" healthy humans. The 1972 science fiction novel, Cyborg by Martin Caidin, which was turned into the popular TV show The Six-Million-Dollar Man, bridges the gap by creating a cyborg superman as a life-saving measure. The title character was a NASA test pilot who suffered traumatic injuries when his plane crashed. His legs, left arm, and an eye were replaced with bionic parts, giving him superior speed, strength and vision.

Martin Caidin's novel may have been inspired by discussions taking place within the space community around that time. NASA had considered the possibility of engineering humans, not to create super heroes, but to help us travel to the other planets and the stars beyond.

Building a Better Astronaut

Without a spacesuit, a person could only survive for about 90 seconds in the vacuum of space. Not only does space lack breathable oxygen, but the vacuum pressure would cause the blood in your veins to bubble and expand. Space is so cold — minus 270 C (minus 454 F) — you would be frozen solid in short order. Radiation is another mode of destruction — space contains high energy gamma and X-rays, as well as the lower energy but still harmful UV light.

In 1960, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline published an essay in Astronautics titled "Cyborgs in Space." Comparing man in space to a fish out of water, they noted that even if you could bring everything you need on your space explorations, "the bubble all too easily bursts."

However, if the human body were altered to adapt to the conditions of space, astronauts would be free to explore the universe without limitation.

"Solving the many technical problems involved in manned space flight by adapting man to his environment, rather than vice versa, will not only mark a significant step forward in man's scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man's spirit as well," the authors write.

The Clynes & Kline paper coined the term "cyborg," and NASA followed up on their suggestions, commissioning a study on the topic. "The Cyborg Study: Engineering Man for Space" was released in 1963, and it reviewed the possibility of organ replacement, as well as how drugs and hibernation could be used to make space travel less stressful. The report concluded that replacing the heart, lungs and kidneys — the organs most stressed by space travel — was not feasible with the technology available at the time.

In considering how hibernation and drugs could be used to deal with physical and psychological stress, the study's scope included master control over an astronaut's brain and body. The current academic discussion of cyborg studies embraces an even broader view of "cyborg" to mean the general impact of technology on our lives.

"You could say that cyborgization started with furs and fire, and certainly with glasses and dentures," says James Hughes, medical ethicist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Hughes is the author of the book, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Hughes says we should acknowledge that we are already living in the Age of the Cyborg. This process has been gradual but steady, and as medical technology advances, more people will opt for the advantages of the latest innovations — so long as they're convinced the benefits outweigh the risks. Hughes points to LASIK eye surgery as one example.

"I continue to wear glasses, and one of the reasons is that I want to see more evidence that LASIK really works in ways it's supposed to," says Hughes. "I haven't been convinced yet. I think many people will have that reaction to sticking hardware in their brain. Your laptop is obsolescent almost the day you buy it, so why would you want to stick something in your brain when you'd need surgery in order to replace it?"

Today a surgical brain implant such as the one to treat Parkinson's disease is a remedy of last resort. But if the technology was more benign, with an easier way for people to download the latest upgrade, such implants might become more common.

"You might imagine that you could swallow a nanotech pill, and nanobots would unfold in your gut and migrate their way past the blood-brain barrier and find where they're supposed to go," says Hughes. "You could theoretically give them instructions, and say, 'It's time for you guys to flush out because I want the next upgrade.' They all die and go out in your urine, and then you take another pill."

Kevin Warwick, of the Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group at the University of Reading in England, isn't waiting for the invention of medical nanobots. He had a computer device surgically implanted in his arm in two separate experiments.

As recounted in his book, I, Cyborg, the first experiment involved a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip enclosed in a glass tube. The tube was inserted under the skin in his arm, and the RFID chip communicated with a computer.

In the second, more invasive experiment, spikes on a silicon microarray were pounded directly into the median nerve in his left arm. This 100 electrode array allowed his nervous system to receive signals from a computer. Warwick and his colleagues performed various experiments, including operating a wheelchair, sending signals over the Internet, and human-to-human communication (via a wire implanted in his wife's arm). Warwick's nerve implant was removed after several months, after the planned experiments were completed.

Warwick says that other than tingly feelings in his fingers due to nerve fiber regeneration, he didn't experience any unusual physical effects from the implant. Before the experiment, he had wondered if his brain would even respond to the electrical signals. If it did accept the signals, would it be able to translate them? Or would the unusual new data overwhelm his brain? Luckily his brain was able to make sense of the input, but when he talks about his experiment with neurosurgeons or other doctors, they often express concern.

"Various surgeons have said I could've had serious problems with putting electrical current into my nervous system that was going up to my brain," says Warwick. "Some of the signals were quite strong, because we were trying to force the brain to not ignore them. My brain could have decided to go on holiday, or I could have gone crazy. It's probably just as well I didn't know completely the things that could've gone wrong."

Despite such risks, Warwick sees huge potential in developing implantable computer chips. He's currently trying to improve the Parkinson's brain implant to better predict the onset of tremors. He also thinks computer chips could be used to bridge broken nerve fibers, bringing movement back to paralyzed body parts, but this concept remains purely speculative.

"For a serious break or lesion, how much you can bring that into play is a big question," says Warwick. "We can't see why people haven't tried [to use computer chips to stimulate damaged nerves] yet, because it seems an obvious thing to try."

A lot of cyborg technology remains either speculative or a long way from practical implementation. The development of artificial organs is not too far advanced from what was available when NASA commissioned its cyborg study.

Although artificial hearts and lungs are now more compact and better at the jobs they were designed for, they are used mainly as temporary replacements to help patients survive until appropriate donor organs become available.

Artificial kidneys — dialysis machines — have posed the greatest challenge, partly due to the need to filter large amounts of fluid. In the 60s, artificial kidneys were the size of a refrigerator. Today, the smallest devices are still not implantable, but a recent prototype can be worn as an extremely bulky utility belt. Artificial bones, blood, skin, eyes, and even noses are now all being developed, and each could conceivably help man cope with the conditions of space. So long as the resulting entity still had a human brain, it could be considered a cyborg rather than an android (a robot that looks like a human).

However, NASA isn't devoting any thought these days on how to build a better astronaut. Their Human Research Program instead focuses on ways that drugs, exercise, better spacesuits and radiation shielding can mitigate the effects of the space environment on human health. There is more discussion in the space community on how to alter entire planets to suit humans — a process called "terraforming" — than there is on changing man to suit space.

One reason NASA has little interest in cyborgs may be due to their focus on bringing astronauts back home safely. Humans altered for life in space might not fare too well on Earth. Permanent adaptation is an issue for future Mars colonists as well, since over time the weaker gravity could result in thinner bones. While some have advocated "one-way trips," with people living out the remainder of their lives on Mars, current NASA plans envision stays lasting only 500 days.

Warwick is disappointed by NASA's lack of research into the possibilities of a cyber-astronaut corps.

"They're taking the easier option as far as public opinion is concerned," says Warwick. "It's certainly not the most exciting one as far as research is concerned, and hence [not the field] with the biggest potential. So it's a shame."

But Hughes says that astronauts, along with all the other people on Earth, will inevitably end up with cyborg upgrades.

"I think that we're all going to be engineering ourselves for various things in this century," says Hughes. "Certainly the rigors of space travel are going to require extensive bioengineering, unless we come up with some incredible material science. So I assume that, just like the kinds of things we'll all be doing on Earth, astronauts will avail themselves of those things."

Visit SPACE.com SATURDAY for Part 2 of this report on the rise of cyborg astronauts and robotic space exploration.