A Revolutionary Mission to Mars
by Marshall Brain
Published March 18, 2004
2004 is the year of Mars. The Mars rovers, combined with the president's announcement of possible manned missions to Mars, have created a great deal of excitement. However, we are all now aware that a Mars mission will not be easy -- there are some big problems that get in the way. The biggest problem is the size of the ship and the amount of fuel that it will take to get that ship to Mars and back.
Ship size is an important consideration on a trip to Mars for several reasons:
Since the mission will be two to three years long, it would be nice to send six or seven people.
Since they will be cooped up in the ship for so long, those six or seven people need a lot of room to move around.
The people need to be shielded from cosmic radiation wherever they are on the ship, and the shielding is heavy. Shielding for a large ship is difficult to imagine right now.
Six or seven people need literally tons of food for a mission that long.
Add in other necessities like fuel, electricity, water, waste disposal, entertainment, exercise equipment, medical supplies, clothing, space suits, landers, etc. for a mission that long, and you need to send a ship as big as a 747 to Mars. That could cost trillions of dollars using today's technology.
The Body-free Approach
I would like to propose an alternative that would make a mission to Mars much easier. Under this proposed mission plan, we take advantage of the robotic technology that is developing so rapidly, and we send just the brains of our astronauts to Mars. The idea sounds ludicrous the first time you hear it. But if you step back and think about it, this idea is not as farfetched as it initially appears. As you think about it further, you realize that this approach is inevitable because of its many advantages. Therefore, we should begin research into body-free spaceflight now.
Very briefly, here is how a body-free trip to Mars would work:
The brain of each astronaut is removed from his/her body and placed in a small tank with appropriate life support equipment attached.
All of the nerve pathways in and out of the brain are connected to a computer.
Only the astronauts' brains fly to Mars.
Vertebrane and Vite Racks
The book Manna proposes the Vertebrane idea, and then follows it with the concept of a Vite Rack. The principle behind a Vite Rack is very simple: a person's brain is removed from his/her body and kept alive in a small tank. All of the nerve inputs and outputs of the brain are connected to and driven by a computer. See Manna (especially chapters 6, 7 and 8) for more details.
An astronaut's disembodied brain receives all of its input from the computer. So, for example, an astronaut no longer sees the world through a pair of biological eyes. Instead, images are generated by the computer and pumped directly into the optic nerve of the disembodied brain. As far as the brain is concerned, the images are "real". They might come from electronic cameras connected to the computer, or they may be images of an artificial world that the computer generates in real time. When the disembodied brain wants to move, it activates nerve fibers leading to former muscles. These nerve impulses from the brain would route directly into the computer, which would respond appropriately.
Using a body-free approach like this would make a Mars mission much easier. We would send just the brains of the astronauts to Mars at greatly reduced expense.
Advantages of the Body-free Approach
A typical human brain has a volume of only 1.5 liters or so. It would probably need to be suspended in fluid, so the brain and the fluid would fit into a 2-liter to 3-liter space. To get an idea of size, think about a 3-liter bottle of soda. That small size reaps large rewards on a mission to Mars. Some of the many advantages of the body-free approach include these:
A disembodied brain does not need to move around, so the only space this brain needs is 3 liters. No need for sleeping quarters, exercise areas, restrooms, showers, privacy areas, etc. If we are sending 10 astronauts, we need only 30 liters of space for their brains. The ship can be incredibly small.
The only part of the ship that needs biological radiation shielding is this 30 liters of space.
Many psychological problems vanish with the body-free approach. 10 people cooped up in a small ship would drive each other nuts very quickly. Privacy would be impossible. The disembodied brains, on the other hand, can explore unbounded virtual worlds and unimagined entertainment options that would eliminate psychological stress.
A human brain weighs only a couple of pounds, compared to 150 pounds or more for a human body. The nutritional and oxygen needs of a brain are therefore much lower than that of an entire body. The body-free mission needs to take only a fraction of the food, oxygen and water that 10 bodies would need. Waste disposal is also highly simplified.
The medical equipment shrinks down to a supply of drugs. The brains can be kept completely isolated from pathogens, and there is no need to worry about bodily injury or surgery.
Problems with bone density and muscular degeneration in zero-G environments disappear.
A body-free mission can land on the surface of Mars without worrying about biological contamination of the Mars environment.
Once the ship arrives, the brains can load into robotic "bodies" to explore the planet. A robotic body does not need a space suit. The brain can easily be shielded against radiation (unlike a body in a suit), and life support for the brain is simplified when compared to life support for a body.
OR, the brains can all stay on the ship and tele-operate robotic bodies on the surface. We cannot tele-operate robots from Earth because of the time delay, but it would be easy to do from a ship orbiting Mars.
Today we see robotic bodies as limited. The interesting thing about the body-free approach is that robotic bodies, in just 20 years, will be much better than human bodies -- stronger, faster, more durable, etc. It is also possible to imagine robotic body shapes that may be better suited to the task of exploring Mars.
This same body-free approach can facilitate trips to much more distant destinations as well. The idea of sending human bodies to Jupiter and its moons is difficult to imagine -- the ship would need to be gigantic. A body-free approach makes it imaginable.
The body-free approach also brings interstellar travel into the realm of possibility. This month's issue of PopSci points out that, even if we can create a ship that can travel at 50,000 miles per second, it will still take 16 years to get to Alpha Centauri (the nearest star). We do not yet have a clue about how to freeze and revive a human brain or body, but there is some hope for figuring out hibernation. Lots of mammals already hibernate, and their core body temperature falls to 40 degrees F or so. However, a human body could degrade tremendously after 16 years, even under hibernation. It would be much easier to cool down and support just the brain.
What are the roadblocks to a brains-only mission to Mars? There are only two fundamental research questions right now:
How do you support a brain that is separated from its body? We need to create systems that can oxygenate and feed the brain, and systems that can eliminate waste products produced by the brain's cells.
How do you connect a brain to a computer? We need to figure out how to interface all of the incoming and outgoing nerve pathways of the brain to a computer.
Those are both surmountable problems, especially in the time frame available. Under even the most optimistic plans, human bodies won't be flying to Mars before 2030 as it is. With an intensive research program, we could probably have body-free brains living in tanks and racks within 20 years.
The key to planning a mission to Mars -- an event that won't happen until 2030 in the best case -- is to look forward to ALL of the technological changes that are going to be occurring in the next several decades. As discussed in Robotic Nation, the robotic revolution is going to completely change our world very quickly. We are already seeing the first signs of the transformation now. None of the mission planning I have seen to date has taken most of these rapid and remarkable technological advancements into account.
NASA should begin to invest in body-free astronaut research, as well as Vite Rack research, today. It has the potential to pay remarkable dividends in just a decade or two. Among other things, it will completely revolutionize space travel.
You may also enjoy this in-depth interview, "Marshall Brain on Singularity 1on1: We're approaching humanity’s make or break period":