Whether it is caloric restriction to an extreme, an attempt to stop aging via genetic engineering, or the movement to upload one’s mind to a digital realm, they all share one thing in common: a desire to stave off death. And they’d all make interplanetary and interstellar travel much easier.

All would make a ten year trip to Pluto or 100-year trip to the nearest solar system more plausible, since you could send one crew for the entire journey. There are no ethical quandaries or concerns that come with a generation ship, like whether or not your great-grandchildren are as qualified to maintain a near-light-speed drive or would have such desire. If you’re sending a crew to terraform Mars or hollow out an asteroid to build a settlement, you could send one crew that works for decades instead of needing to send regular replacements. It may be easier to recruit someone for a 50-year assignment on a terraforming mission if they know they’ll live to see their children grow up on the planet.

There are a variety of ways the human life expectancy could be extended. If any of these methods pan out, they’d radically alter the potential for space travel, albeit in different ways.

Altering the Body through Medication / Lifestyle

The “Known Space” universe by Larry Niven featured a drug called booster-spice. Genetically engineered by aliens from ragweed, it stalled aging as long as you took it. There was one story featuring a starship displaced in time showing up a billion years in the future, and they debated what to do. They had a zookeeper with animals on ice. They realized how critical he was to survival of the species and threatened to force the old man to take “booster-spice” for their collective good. Then came his revelation; he wasn’t part of a cult that refused the drug, a group that literally died out on Earth, but was fatally allergic. He could not take it. They then had to agree to settle the ruined remains of Earth, because this key person couldn’t make the hundred year trip to a better world. I relate to the story because I share the allergy.

Space-faring civilization becomes much more plausible if the trained crew you send out today is the same that arrives in 150 years, still in prime condition. Any factors that prohibit someone from receiving the life-extension treatment will preclude it from being part of the interstellar culture and/or gene pool.

If you have a crew dependent on a drug, injections, chemical treatments or whatnot, their ability to make a long journey depends as much on the continual supply of that substance as it does life support. Someone might choose to go without the drug for a year not to starve, but eventually, they have to make hard choices. If you’re going to ship the supply of said substance, you’ll need to figure out how to package it for a 50 or 500 year voyage to be just as good when they take it as when you made it. And it will dramatically add to the logistical complexity of the trip.

If caloric restriction actually extends lifespans by 50%, it dovetails well into space travel. No one is going to oppose a crew that lives longer and needs less food.

Altering the Body Via Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering could create people with far longer life-expectancies than those already born. Or it could alter the telomeres or other biological basis for aging in existing people. In either case, you’ve probably had one treatment to extend the life of the patient. I’ll assume in this scenario it is a one-off, or else you’re in the “regular maintenance” situation of taking a drug regularly. A shot once a year or pill once a day becomes less of a difference on a 500-year space voyage.

As a character in the novel Icehenge said, with 500-year lifespans, a 100-year trip is an inconvenience, not a death sentence. And once there, they could give their children the freedom they couldn’t find on Earth or Mars.

The advantage of this model of near-immortality is that there is no need to plan for “life extension treatments” along with supplying air, water, food and waste recycling to a crew. They’d want to take the ability to repeat the process in their own children once they arrive and start reproducing on a new world.

We might say the worst case scenario for a viable colony is immortals having mortal children and having to live with the consequences. That was addressed in the little known novel The Last Dancer by Daniel Keys Moran.

Altering the Body Via Cybernetics

While the Borg count as cybernetic beings, I’m looking more at the replacement of human body parts with mechanical parts as the person ages, while maintaining individuality. This mode of immortality could lead to a de facto singularity as people’s brains become increasingly integrated with replacement technology until there is only a non-organic being left. In this case, it is similar to the ship that had all of its parts replaced until none of the original remained. Is it still person X? If not, you better have organic tissue replacements that keep someone human enough to still count as person X. Otherwise, your immortal crew leaves with a few implants and returns as robots that think they’re people.

Suppose you take this route. You could even have a planned set of organ replacements as preparation for the voyage. Here’s the artificial kidneys that handle the waste products that build up in a habitat, and here are the nanites that minimize your risk of cancer. In this scenario, you need a supply of artificial organs and/or ability to manufacture them en route. Now you need a medical manufacturing capability that rivals that of making an immortality drug, but it may even be more complex. Conversely, if the manufacturing stalls, people can keep going with the parts they already have and spare parts in stock until biology fails.

OK, this scenario is plausible if your definition of “spare parts inventory” is includes spare kidneys and hearts in addition to replacement water filters and meteor patches. Or your manufacturing capacity includes nanite/stem cell manufacturing of replacement organs in addition to making spare bolts and microchips.

Abandoning the Body Altogether

I respect the guy who founded “The Church of the Singularity”. He was honest in admitting how much of Christianity the Singularity has appropriated. That there is no God, but we’re going to invent an all-knowing, should be all-seeing, all powerful AI that we assume will be benevolent and tell us all what to do. And the true believers can abandon the limits of the flesh, uploading their minds (souls) to digital heaven, experiencing the nirvana of one-ness … you get the idea.

The idea of uploaded human minds running starships isn’t new. The Ship that Sang series by Anne McCaffrey was a good model for this, though she used the brains of children who’d have otherwise died. The novel Mayfly is closer to what could happen. One man’s mind is uploaded to a computer to become its immortal core. He can do anything to achieve the mission as long as he doesn’t kill so many people that the generation ship can’t continue its mission.

What isn’t as often addressed is the uploading of human minds to exploration ships, providing a template for ethical AI and decision making criteria based on what potential human settlers would want. Uploaded human minds could end up in individual bodies, too. In theory, their minds could be downloaded to human bodies if the world is found to be habitable.

Side benefits of this strategy include: no one dies even on 1000 year trips, life support is irrelevant, potentially far faster trips due to lighter cargoes, and you could send the same crew on 50 ships to 50 destinations. Risks include a power disruption or EMP killing everyone, software degradation over time and altered/evolved personalities making very inappropriate decisions.

If human body downloads are an option, you now have to have the technology to create clones of the bodies and correctly download the uploaded personalities. Whether they’d want to do so, and whether or not they’d be willing to reproduce normally after such an experience is purely hypothetical. Conversely, if you have mental backups of a crew and the ability to make biological copies, the ship could in theory keep going after a life support failure by eventually replacing the dead crew with their copies. What this does to Human Resources and the law is a whole other story … or several. This is touched on in the show Altered Carbon. Conversely, you could have human uploaded personalities overseeing seedships that would create a new generation of colonists, and those personalities have far more experience and ability to guide young human children than a generic AI. But if the destination world proves inhospitable, there’s no need to break out the baby-making equipment. Just pack up and move on to the next target.

The crew might have spare “personalities” in inventory. Forget arguing whether you need a diplomat or xeno-linguist on the crew when there are limited resources. Just save a few copies of such people and biological templates in storage and recreate as necessary. As a fringe benefit, the same diplomat in two different corners of the universe is responsible for First Contact with two alien species. Doctor dies? Replicate them and try not to make the same mistake. Or they remain digital programs to guide the human crew as necessary.

I’d hate to think that Kendy in The Smoke Ring was prescient, but we can’t deny that a group organizing an interstellar mission might have a chekist on board to supervise what goes on and manage the crew. Or, potentially, maintain final authority should the crew rebel or fail in some other way.

 

Summary

Regardless of the means by which human lifespans are extended, decades and centuries-long trips become a matter of logistics and engineering, not ethics. The method of life extension affects the logistics and methods of interstellar travel, but in all cases, it makes it more plausible.

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Check out Tamara Wilhite’s Amazon Author Page and see her on Hubpages.

Images via: y Aynur_zakirov (Pixabay)

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