Love and enhancement in outer space

25 September 2012

 Illustration by Thomas Dowse
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Illustration by Thomas Dowse

Having built a cyborg, the next challenge for visitors to our regular series of Superhuman drop-in events was to construct an astronaut, capable of travelling vast interstellar distances. Guerilla Science’s Zoe Cormier takes us on a journey into space.

“The year is 2050. Virgin Galactic are planning a manned mission to Gliese 581c, 192 trillion km or 23 light years away, the closest habitable planet to Earth in another solar system,” Louis Buckley read out to our audience from the white card our guest had selected.

“With a nuclear-powered spacecraft, the trip will take 50 years, and the astronauts will need to cope with an extended period of living in isolation and in zero gravity,” he continued. “You are in charge of Virgin Galactic’s astronaut development lab, and have a range of genetic, neurological and anatomical modifications at your disposal. Choose three enhancements that will make your astronaut a perfect fit for this challenging mission.”

The trip would last 23 years at the bare minimum – and would require traveling at the speed of light. Space travel comes with other hazards, such as bone density loss due to zero gravity conditions, the risk of genetic mutation due to cosmic rays, and the simple chore of dealing with boredom and loneliness.

Would we want our astronaut to be cybernetic, able to interface fully with the ship’s machinery? Telepathic, capable of communicating with any aliens it may encounter on the exoplanet? Autotrophic, capable of producing its own energy, doing away with the need for storing food on the interstellar flight?

In the end, our storytellers decided on a hyper long-lived astronaut, able to live to 200 and survive the journey there and back. They also clad him in an exoskeleton, to shield him from cosmic rays. And, to complete the triad of traits, our guests decided to give him turbo-charged serotonin circuits, so he would always be content, immune to the deteriorating effects of loneliness. Plus we decided to staff the ship with several exoskeletoned, cheerful, long-lived astronauts (for practicality’s sake), who would take turns in hypersleep so only one would have to man the ship at a time.

Diligently, artist Thomas Dowse scribbled out a chiselled, exoskeletoned astronaut, beaming happily at us from the page as he sat next to his sleeping shipmates. Dowse had been enlisted to bring the visions of our guests to life, as part of Build Your Own Superhero, an interactive live storytelling event hosted within the Superhuman exhibition by Guerilla Science.

“We made the events an exercise in imagination,” says Guerilla Science Creative Director Jen Wong. “It was great to see people envisioning the future with the scientists to create fantastical future superheroes.”

With our superhero created, the stage was now set for the gathering crowd to weave the tale around our astronaut. Where might their imaginations take them?

After debating for a bit the kind of fate that should befall our astronaut, our guests decided on a happy ending: Once the ship reached Gliese, a friendly race of aliens instantly became enamoured with our astronauts, mistaking their exoskeletons for a Gliesian life form. Romance ensues, and a baby – an alien-human hybrid – is born to happy parents.

“I was quite surprised by the thought that the audience put into this – they really made quite an effort to think of unique and interesting characteristics to give to our superhumans,” says Dr Eugene Schuster, a biologist from University College London at the Institute of Healthy Ageing, our ‘scientific advisor’ for the afternoon. He has spent much of his career researching the genes that help to regulate lifespan – genes that transhumanists believe should be mastered and altered in order to release humans from the chains of mortality. Although immortality may forever remain the stuff of science fiction, there are some who think we may eventually be able to extend the human lifespan by several decades, something that may come in handy should we ever wish to travel beyond the solar system.

“The afternoon was a lot more fun than I was expecting – I thought it would be quite difficult to get people engaged, but people were surprisingly responsive,” he says.

In fact, the audience were eager at times to query his advice. When Dr Schuster suggested that we might want to make our astronauts shorter in order to make them longer-lived – because there is a correlation between height and lifespan – a few people found this hard to believe, because previous generations lived shorter lives and were also shorter, due to nutritional deficits.

“I was a bit surprised to even be challenged on my scientific knowledge in a pleasant and friendly way,” he says. “Most of the people didn’t seem to have a science background, and they were far better informed than I was anticipating.”

Build Your Own Superhero returns to Wellcome Collection on Wednesday 26 September. Superhuman drop-in events run until 12 October.