In 2011, under the headline ‘The end of the Space Age – Inner space is useful. Outer space is history’, The Economist magazine reflected a developing view that, despite the idealism and hope surrounding the first manned space flights and missions to the Moon during the 1960s, dreams of colonies on Mars and beyond were turning out to be just that – dreams. 2011 was the year that the Space Shuttle was finally retired from service with no replacement ready, and the Obama administration’s ambivalent attitude left the US space programme adrift. Today, however, it seems the space race is on again like never before, with a host of new players and massive private sector finance. But what lies behind this flurry of activity? Are the forces driving technological development changing?
Despite heavy military involvement and much geopolitical posturing, space exploration has generally been seen as an extension of our innate nature as explorers, pushing ever onward and upward to expand knowledge and understanding, exploiting new resources, building bigger and better stuff, and improving the human condition. As the decades have gone by, however, a dark side to all this has become discernible, a shadowy underbelly which – if it existed in the past – was more carefully concealed. There are many interconnected agendas at play, but increasingly intertwined threads of thought and belief can be identified.
Firstly, there is a growing belief that the only way around the seemingly-intractable environmental problems we face is to move off-planet. Many eminent experts including the likes of Stephen Hawking have expressed this view in sometimes apocalyptic terms. Simply put, we are running out of room and resources, the biosphere is collapsing, and the only hope for the future of mankind is to seed the stars. There are also some who feel that, for what they consider much more positive reasons, human destiny ultimately lies beyond Earth. In particular, those who view the inherent limits of both the planet and the human body itself as boundaries to be crossed and prisons to be escaped. Enter, Transhumanism. To quote philosopher and futurist Max More, “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”
Sounds positive enough, depending on your point of view, and Transhumanist cheerleaders like Ray Kurzweil have done much to capture the collective imagination with their utopian visions. In the context of cascading crises on Earth, however, the Transhumanist agenda often looks like little more than escapism. Transcend the body, escape the Earth, achieve immortality among the stars, and all those nasty political, economic, and social problems just go away. It’s clear that many of the global systems, man-made and natural, on which we rely are under unsustainable pressure. But walking away from our problems won’t be so easy, especially when many of them have their origins in the way we think about ourselves, each other, and our place in the world.
Man imagined landing on the Moon long before he actually did, so the idea that to travel further and faster all man had to do was think bigger is perhaps understandable. Reality, however, has not turned out to be quite so straightforward. The post-war sci-fi boom added fuel to the ensuing Cold War space race as the language and concepts of each overlapped with one another, and the Soviet science fiction of the time was every bit as visionary and provocative as that from the US. It’s significant that the original Star Trek TV series and the Apollo space programme overlapped to the extent that they did. The first space shuttle orbiter, unveiled in 1976, was christened ‘Enterprise’ in honour of Captain James T. Kirk’s famous starship, even if the ‘real’ Enterprise never actually flew in space. Arguably, the Star Trek franchise has been considerably more prolific than the US space programme, and the striking similarity between the insignia of the recently-launched US Space Force and that of Starfleet Command is an awkward reminder of the continuing disconnect between fact and fantasy in space exploration.
RACE TO THE MOON
Despite lofty rhetoric, the original US and Soviet space programmes, while always competitive, soon became the leading edge in a geopolitical power struggle, propaganda tools subservient to wider (or perhaps narrower) strategic concerns. The Soviets fired the opening salvo with Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to go into orbit, launched on October 4, 1957. America’s fretful response culminated in President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, a promise conveniently fulfilled on July 20, 1969.
Of the many Apollo missions, six landed on the moon, the last being Apollo 17 in December 1972. Was it really meant to end there? It depends who you ask. For his part, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan offered, “As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”
Perhaps the most perplexing question surrounding manned Moon missions is why we never returned. Was a flag-waving propaganda victory really enough? Some claim that manned Moon landings were simply too expensive to continue, although if true this bodes ill for the future as projected costs only seem to have rocketed since then. But if manned Moon landings were achieved with such primitive technology, why does repeating the feat now appear so hopelessly fraught? That we still have to contend with the physics of gravity and the lethal environment beyond Earth isn’t really an answer. Perusing current plans to return to the Moon, it’s as if we’re starting over again, grappling with problems that were apparently solved decades ago. Ironically, the vastly increased complexity of modern space flight systems (apparently necessary now but not necessary then) actually makes them more, not less, vulnerable to radiation and other potentially deadly risk factors.
NASA’s Space Shuttle programme ferried crew and cargo from Earth to orbit between 1981 and 2011, and during its first flush of success seemed to place the US firmly back at the forefront of space exploration. Despite the fact that the Shuttle was designed to operate only in low Earth orbit, in the public mind it represented a huge technological leap forward. But unlike the many mishaps during earlier space exploration ventures, including the Apollo programme, the disasters which befell the Shuttles were broadcast worldwide in real time and replayed again and again: Challenger, lost 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, and Columbia, lost approximately 16 minutes before its expected landing on February 1, 2003. In total, 14 astronauts lost their lives. These events were a considerable blow to the American psyche and that of space enthusiasts everywhere.
In the wake of the manned Moon missions, not only did the widely anticipated explosion in space exploration not occur, it actually seemed to stall, or even regress. Based on the rapid progress made up to that point one might, in the not too distant future, have expected lunar and even Martian bases and crewed missions to other parts of the solar system. But this is due at least in part to the ‘exponential growth fallacy’. Simply put, exponential growth never lasts. What appears to be exponential growth can in fact turn out to be logistic growth i.e. growth which occurs rapidly but levels off and flattens when certain limits are reached, such as the availability of resources. The success of the Apollo missions is often cited as an example of what can be achieved when we decide to throw whatever it takes at any challenge. But beyond resource constraints, which are becoming ever more formidable, there was never any guarantee that technology required to land humans on the Moon would necessarily be followed by technology required to do the same on Mars or more distant worlds.
In 2020, however, with past spacefaring triumphs fresh in our minds and past difficulties optimistically overlooked, the space race is very much on again. Barely a week goes by without the breathless announcement of some new space exploration plan or project. Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are just three of the high-profile companies currently constructing our future in space, working on everything from satellite launches and cargo drops to space tourism, including Earth-orbiting hotels. But their progress, although tangible, falls far short of their own projections. Meanwhile, all that the current cluster of smaller space start-ups seem to have are grand plans, flashy websites, and dubious ‘investment opportunities’. Mars One offers a pertinent if admittedly extreme example of this phenomenon.
Because of our brief lifespans and Earth’s relatively small size, we tend to be blind to the scales of time and distance space presents us with. However, any plans to colonize space must take these fully into account. There’s also the issue of environmental conditions. We know from our limited forays into our own solar system that the other planets – including Mars – have environments which are extremely hostile to life as we know it. The fact that we endured conditions on the Moon – where radiation, meteoroids, and extreme hot and cold are major hazards – is incredible, but even to make the jump to Mars will require a quantum leap in survival capabilities. From the highest mountain to the deepest sea (anyone remember Sealab?), Earth presents habitat challenges that we haven’t overcome, either because it’s impossible or simply not worth the effort. Despite permanent outposts, we haven’t colonized Antarctica for similar reasons. With current and even foreseeable technology, what hope have we of colonizing terrain which is exponentially harsher and unforgiving?
As far as distance goes, Apollo 11 took a little over two days to reach the Moon, while reaching Mars with current propulsion capacity would take anything from six months to a year. NASA’s New Horizons mission, meanwhile, took nearly a decade to reach Pluto. So even in what we could call our ‘immediate’ cosmic environment, the journey times involved become astronomical very fast. Beyond our solar system, the numbers become almost incomprehensible. Alpha Centauri is our closest star and planetary system. It contains both Proxima Centauri – the nearest known star to our sun – and Proxima b, the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Although one is slightly ‘closer’ than the other, both are approximately 4.2 light years or 40 trillion km from Earth. Even if we could travel in a Space Shuttle at 28,000 km per hour, getting to Proxima b would take about 148,800 years. In this light, the idea of leaving the solar system in the foreseeable future seems like total fantasy. Incidentally, the Andromeda galaxy – the nearest to our own Milky Way – is about 2.5 million light years away.
(TRANS)HUMANS IN SPACE
Technical hurdles aside, space travel becomes infinitely more challenging with human cargo. The Apollo missions overcame the radiation of the Van Allen belts, cosmic rays, extreme heat and cold, and other potentially life threatening hazards which would be orders of magnitude greater even on a journey to Mars. Even astronauts on the International Space Station, orbiting just 400 km above Earth, have suffered numerous health problems including alterations in DNA and cognition, and blood clots. In any future long-term missions, it is not difficult to imagine how astronauts who started out at peak fitness would struggle to stay in shape and ultimately become unfit to carry out the work required of them.
Beyond physical challenges, psychological complications could prove the most pernicious. These could stem from within individuals, or from interpersonal dynamics, and each would affect the other. Living in confined, uncomfortable conditions for extended periods while dealing with difficult, detailed technical tasks would test even the toughest mind. The Biosphere 2 project of the 1990s, a two year experiment in self-sufficiency in the Arizona desert, produced numerous examples of what can go awry within isolated human groups cut off from outside support.
Taking a cold, hard look at the colossal challenges haunting our future dreams, and applying the sort of long-term thinking that’s all-too-rare among our species, we can see how some might conclude that the only way to overcome these obstacles is to take the weakest link – the human body – out of the equation. Virtually immortal transhuman or post-human beings just might be capable of surviving the rigours of space, live long enough to cross light years, see sci-fi tropes like warp drives and wormholes become reality, or even encode and then transmit themselves throughout the galaxy.
Outside the somewhat rarefied confines of the Transhumanist movement, the idea of human physical limitations (whether as the result of disease, disability, or accident) being overcome segues seamlessly into notions of physical augmentation and improvement in popular culture in the likes of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), Robocop (1987), and many more. Prosthetics and robotics are portrayed as steps towards genetic engineering and other enhancements. At first designed to alleviate commonplace, uncontroversial physical problems, in time such technologies can be applied to more subjective afflictions – ‘imperfections’, ‘weaknesses’, ‘disadvantages’ – the stuff of past and perhaps future eugenics nightmares.
In the early 21st century, these technologies are no longer the exclusive domain of science fiction. Although emergent and still speculative, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, cybernetics, cloning, mind-machine melding, mind-uploading, and many others are already beginning to shape our future. Although there’s no reason to view the rise of such transformative technology as entirely negative, it will create losers as well as winners. Hierarchies of haves and have-nots are a standard feature of technological development. Even with the best intentions, basic issues such as cost and scalability generally prevent the latest innovations becoming equally available to all. Even today, while many millions of people still do not have access to clean drinking water, access to broadband is now being touted as a universal human right.
CAN WE OPT OUT?
So much for those who want it and can’t get it; what of those who don’t want it but are forced to have it? Not only are some of the most radical Transhumanist technologies proving increasingly divisive, some will only function on the basis of universality i.e. they only work if we all go along with them. We see this principle in action with identity cards – if some can opt out, the whole system is undermined. Now imagine an implantable chip designed to diagnose or prevent infection by a pandemic virus, the sort of disaster that the recent Chinese coronavirus outbreak could easily have descended into. In a chaotic near-future on the brink of breakdown, would you be allowed to opt out? How would you feel if your neighbours said no? Would you object if your ideological opponents benefited? In the midst of a lethal pandemic, would a Republican President allow Democrats an antidote? Everyday experience reminds us just what can happen when some people’s choices curtail the choices of others, and this feeds into the wider issue of the context in which such decisions are taken: What is the nature of the social order of the day? Is it stable? Is it stratified? Is its leadership benign? These questions become infinitely more complex and challenging in the context of profoundly transformed human minds and bodies. Much has been written on the ethics of Transhumanism, on the importance of consent, equality, and fairness. But a being no longer fully human may develop a very different set of principles, priorities, and concepts of morality.
In addition, Transhumanist schemes are subject to the same resource restrictions and ‘exponential growth fallacy’ as space-colonization plans. A great deal of ‘inevitable’ progress has already sputtered or stopped because raw materials became unaffordable or unavailable, or because theoretical inventions failed to make the leap into the real world. But still the ‘They’ll think of something’ magical thinking continues concerning renewable energy, climate change, as well as our manifest destiny in space as immortal cyborgs or cloud beings. The latter, of course, pivots on the materialist assumption that consciousness is produced by the brain. Cutting edge consciousness research, however, suggests that the brain is instead a receiver of consciousness, that consciousness may be the ground of reality. If that is the case, then the entire Transhumanist project may be fundamentally flawed.
CULT OF THE TECHNO-FUTURISTS
For the time being at least, Transhumanism will remain an exclusive club. It remains to be seen what future fault-lines may emerge within society and how – or even if – they will be crossed. Will a techno-enhanced elite escape off-world Elysium-style, leaving a benighted underclass grubbing for survival in literal and metaphorical dirt? Perhaps the new techno-elite will remain on Earth, with the underprivileged masses reduced to under-the-radar living in off-grid ghettos. In many respects, this is already happening. This raises the spectre of a backlash, a Butlerian Jihad waged, at first, against the physical infrastructure supporting the Transhumanist network, which could be extremely vulnerable if it remained on Earth.
Setting the exclusivity and expense of the technology aside, there is at present no real appetite for the agendas of Transhumanism and space-colonization among the masses who are much too busy with more pressing concerns. That the agendas of Transhumanism and space-colonization allegedly hold the key to solving so many of humanity’s problems is of academic interest at best. However, where it is seen as useful or even essential to garner popular support (or dampen resistance), the masses need to be ‘educated’ and ‘encouraged’. Transhumanism and space-colonization enthusiasts frequently couch their rhetoric – consciously or otherwise – in religious terms, and each camp has more than its fair share of fanatics. We are witnessing nothing less than the birth of a new religion for a secular age, poised to prime humanity for technological transformation in a way that science alone never could. The dream of techno-utopia among the stars keeps its disciples devout despite delay after delay and disappointment after disappointment, much like millenarians commiserate the non-appearance of each apocalypse with the announcement of the next. What’s another missed deadline compared to the rapture of the Singularity?
Philosopher John Gray succinctly sums it up: “Like the religions that preceded them, the ruling faiths of our time are immortality ideologies. The techno-futurists of Silicon Valley are the channel for a cult in which humans can defeat death by ceasing to be organic beings. Ray Kurzweil’¦ believes we are approaching an ‘omega point’, a juncture some time during the next few decades when advances in human knowledge will come together in an explosive new synthesis. When this happens, the old world in which we’re destined to die will cease to exist. Humans can sever their links with the frail flesh and become immortal minds in cyberspace. This is the millenarian mindset recurring yet again, this time in scientific clothing.”
Just as the original space race was driven as much by geopolitical machinations as by human adventure, so the current space drive is fueled by an uneasy combination of expansionism and crisis. Riven by rivalries and nationalism, far from uniting the human race, it is projecting human fear and greed beyond the Earth. In the final analysis, it may all just be about saving capitalist culture. Our global creed of endless economic growth is now demanding that we expand off-world as Earth’s non-renewable resources – and those we simply cannot renew fast enough – fail to satisfy our mania for consumption. But there’s no sign of oil on the Moon, and we won’t be building any wind farms on Mars or supermarkets on Saturn.
Transhumanists are humans too – for the time being at least – and thus carry the same psychological and emotional baggage into their transcendent daydreams. But our predicament is sharpened by a sense of urgency. Time seems to be running short. The quest for inner and outer space is in more ways than one a race against time. We are presented with a stark choice: either we colonize space or merge with machines or upload our minds or some combination of these, or we go extinct. Our bodies and the biosphere are dying, the end is nigh.
The striving and questing at the heart of human exploration and innovation is as fundamental to our species as the basic urge to survive and reproduce. It has elevated us to stratospheric heights and plunged us to vertiginous depths. It will continue as long as we do. We also crave transcendence and, ultimately, it is this deep desire which motivates us most. Whether reaching for the stars or striving to transcend the body, we demonstrate an instinctual understanding – however obfuscated – that, in essence, we are part of something infinitely vast. But because we languish in an age where notions of meaning and purpose are derided and denied, our questing is reduced to simple fear of death. In a materialistic, mechanistic cosmos, matter is all that matters. So, if we upload our minds and colonize other worlds, bodily and planetary death can be overcome.
LIFE, DEATH, AND TRANSCENDENCE
The Transhumanist agenda seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of life and death. Fear of death, of total annihilation, of being forgotten and disappearing without trace, are at the heart of it. Even plans for proactive improvements in human capabilities and performance take greatly extended or infinite lifespans as a given. Which, incidentally, begs the question of what a world where no-one (or very few) ever die would look like. If we transcend death do we then also transcend birth? Such an idea might well appeal to those advocating drastic population reduction.
We sometimes find ourselves in moments of bliss or joy wishing that they would never end, but knowing that such moments do not last can make the experience so much richer and more meaningful. Difficult times, then, can be borne more easily and placed in perspective when we acknowledge that they too shall pass. Quite what the tapestry of human experience might look like in a life of a thousand or a million years is unknowable. Whatever schemes we dream up for the future, whatever worlds we imagine, let us not derogate this incredible journey – being born, living, and dying as a human being on the only planet we may ever have.
Originally published in New Dawn magazine, March / April 2020.