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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
On the coming Singularity and Artificial Intelligence:
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