Flying Starfish

Like 'Goodbye Global Warming', 'Flying Starfish' didn't tickle the editorial fancy either. Not contentious but possibly a bit too similar in style the the previous Apollo anniversary articles perhaps. Again, I'm including it here so you can make up your own mind.

Nearly 400 million years ago, a 3 foot long half-lizard, half-fish pulled itself out of the ocean and went for a walk on a muddy, equatorial shore. Lurching forward on limbs more fin than foot and dragging its tail along the ground it continued on for about 45 feet and then… And then we don’t know. That short, indistinct trail of prints and tail are all that we have, preserved now in rock at the edge of the island of Valentia off the East coast of Ireland. The creature was a tetrapod. Evolved during the Devonian period, it was one of the earliest known animals to leave behind the warmth and safety of the sea to brave the unknown danger of the harsh, dry land. These proto-amphibians became the ancestors of every vertebrate life form on earth. It’s the grandparent – by way of 100 million generations – of every dinosaur and donkey, hawk and human.

Though separated by 400 million years, footprints on Valentia Island and the surface of the Moon are evidence of species exploring dangerous, alien worlds.

Humans too left the warmth and safety of Earth’s atmosphere to stamp our footprints on a harsh, dry world and now we’re preparing to return. NASA aims to go back to the Moon in handful of years. Elon Musk wants to establish a million-strong civilisation on Mars this century and Jeff Bezos has revived the dreams of miles long, orbiting habitats housing billions. They all have their critics – of their personalities, their politics and especially of their crazy space dreams. No end of sensible people have pointed out the many hitches and overlooked flaws in these plans. No more than the tiniest fraction of humanity will ever set foot on another world even in the best circumstances they say, there is no ‘Planet B’. They aren’t wrong.

Poison Planet

Exploring space and colonizing other worlds is often compared to the old West – space wagon trains and hardy spacesuited settlers homesteading asteroids – but in truth, we’re more like that tetrapod, heaving itself awkwardly onto a 400 million year old beach. Squishy, wet humans are natural space explorers the way starfish are natural flyers. Zero gravity rots our muscles and bones while radiation sleets through human flesh, mutating cells and breaking neural connections. Without the shield of Earth’s atmosphere, a life in space is a death sentence with the only question being whether the tumours will get you before the dementia does. The worlds we want to explore are hardly more accommodating. Mars is covered in toxic chlorine compounds and the Moon is thick with static dust that’s all microscopic sharp edges. As far as human life is concerned they might as well be called the Poison Planet and Asbestos World. There are engineering solutions – water tank shielding, rotating habitats, clean room airlocks – but to really prosper on other worlds we’ll need more. Even if we eventually replace some sections of our feeble flesh with more robust machine parts we will need genetic engineering far beyond the current objectives of mere immunity to illness. Humans are already a mongrel species, part Homo Sapien part Neanderthal part Desovinian and maybe others, but we may have to become more mongrel still.

Half man, half bear

Tardigrades or ‘water bears’ are microscopic lifeforms that are all but indestructible. One of their survival tricks is a protein that acts as a radiation shield for their cells. Scientists in Japan have already performed early experiments incorporated this protein into human cells to give them a 50% increase in resistance to X-Rays. It may be the first step (of very many) to producing radiation-resistant people. If we can borrow genes from Tardigrades, maybe we can eventually learn to copy some other useful tricks – salamanders regenerate limbs, jellyfish age backwards and a slew of animals are sensitive to magnetic and electric fields. All helpful traits for future spacefarers to be sure but we don’t have to look exclusively to the animal kingdom for useful attributes. There are already humans with natural mutations that make them good space settler candidates. Myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy doubles muscle mass, increases muscle strength and reduces body fat while mutations in the LRP5 gene can greatly increased bone density. Editing both of these into space settler populations might go a long way to countering the muscle wasting and bone loss of low or microgravity environments. It would be ironic if those fragile, willowy Lunar and Martian colonists of science fiction turned out, in reality, to be stronger than their terrestrial cousins.

Fin or foot?

No one on Earth is motivated to attempt that level of genetic tinkering but no one on Earth has too. With literal worlds to gain, off earth colonies will be less restrained by risks and ethical dilemmas than their Earth-bound neighbours. It will be second or third generation Martians, aching for a life beyond their caves and domes, who take the chances, pay the price and reap the rewards. Only the tiniest fraction of humanity will make these sort of changes but tetrapods were the tiniest fraction of all life in the sea. Just as they had to lose their essential ‘fishiness’ and become something more to conquer the land, we will have to choose to become something more to conquer the stars. Whether those new people still call themselves human will probably owe more to culture than science but they will certainly be people still, with their own heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs. Their descendants will be the ones who write new dramas across vastly greater stages on worlds across the solar system and beyond. A remote ancestor’s first Lunar footprint may come to mean as little to them as the first tetrapod fin print on some lost Devonian shore does to us.

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