Post by AJ Rise:
Although human evolution is, without a doubt, beyond incredible, inadequacies come to fore when we spend time unfamiliar environments, surrounded by only a handful of similarly predisposed coworkers within a relatively tiny space can. By no means does this subtract from the wondrous potential of space exploration, but it cannot be denied that certain medical hazards are a significant obstacle to long-distance space exploration. Getting a group of well-trained astronauts to Mars in one piece and just as sane as they were upon departure is a doable task, but nevertheless daunting (sanity is defined in relative terms, because a willingness to go to Mars requires a certain level of insanity to being with). A manned mission to the moons of Jupiter and beyond would involve roughly six years of confinement, inevitably leading to mental health challenges and muscular atrophy. What strategies, then, should we employ to send the first humans beyond the asteroid belt?
Science fiction would have us freeze our astronauts solid for a few decades while they hurtle off into space, only to wake them up as if no time has passed. It’s an awesome concept, worthy of its place in stories like Alien, Star Wars, and Lost in Space. However, cryostasis remains more fiction and science. While it is possible to drastically reduce the rate of biochemical process by dropping the temperature, it is not possible to completely halt them in their tracks without reaching absolute zero (-273.15 C), which is regarded to be practically impossible to reach, and would require impractical amounts of energy to maintain. Furthermore, it is impossible to reach that temperature without reaching each intermediate temperature between that and body temperature (37 C). The range between -273 C and 21 C is pretty much an instant death zone, as cold temperatures fatally damage proteins, tissues, and organs. There remain many mysteries on the subject of the human brain, and it is unlikely that freezing and unfreezing someone would have the “waking up from a nap” effect from the movies; there would almost certainly be some nasty side effects. This is not to say that we should not continue to research cryogenic preservation technologies, as they have several critical applications with regard to medicine and preservation. It just may not be the most practical method of suspended animation.
However, there is always more than one way to solve a problem. Recent developments in computer engineering have unlocked another approach. What if, instead of protecting the frail human physiology from the unfamiliar environment, we simply tricked it into believing it was in a completely normal one? It’s well established that the human brain is easily fooled. It makes up stories and tells them to us as memories, seeing what it expects to see. The brain is the sole dictator of the going-on’s in the human body, and so if the brain doesn’t suspect any monkey business is afoot, the musculoskeletal system will remain perfectly intact and functional. The astronaut will remain sane and healthy, even entertained for the entire duration of their journey.
This is my proposal for an improved method of astronaut preservation for long voyages: immersive virtual reality. The technology already exists, or nearly so, and its most cutting edge advancements provide a near-reality experience. In the near future, computer scientists could produce a virtual reality system capable of mimicking reality to the extent necessary to completely hoodwink ourselves. Once a simulation’s omitted details are minute enough, the brain will fill them in rather than noticing them and bringing it to the attention of the conscious.
So say, then, the astronauts board their rocket and perform the necessary tasks for takeoff, just like the astronauts of the space shuttle and Apollo program. Once in earth orbit, they wait for the right moment and perform the burn to set them on a trajectory towards their destination. They spend a few hours doing whatever needs to be done to keep the ship safe and running for the months or even years ahead.
Then, they float themselves over to their ship’s virtual station, put on the necessary gear, and settle down for a while.
The specific virtual reality experience can vary, but it would be practical to make some features universal. In principle, the virtual world in space should be fundamentally similar to life on earth, and contain all its essential components: walking around, talking, working and thinking, social interaction, etc. To avoid the devastating effects of solitary confinement, realistic social interaction is critical, either between the astronauts or simulated entities.. It would also be important to integrate physical exercise, as to allow the astronaut to maintain normal fitness.
Furthermore, the only way to ensure the crew remembers small mission details throughout the years is to make their knowledge repeatedly useful. Most students can’t remember what they learned the last year in school a week into summer vacation, so keeping the details of astronaut training clear after 6 years is a lot to ask. For the safety of the crew, it would be essential to integrate continued mission training into the VR simulation. A variety of features could constitute such training, at the mission director’s discretion. The actual mission could actually be simulated en route, including various “mission failure” scenarios. For example, if the crew was to land on Titan, the crew could perform their mission dozens of times before arriving.
It’s clear that even a small amount of VR immersion en route could be sufficient to maintain and improve the important skills and knowledge of space missions, and maintain sanity. But how can it truly avoid physical atrophy and other medical concerns? After all, strapping an astronaut to a treadmill and putting goggles on them does little to change the fact that their organs are no longer subjected to the constant downward force we all know and love. Inevitably, unused muscle groups surrounding and supporting various body parts will disappear in zero-gravity.
The solution lies in the structure of the human nervous system. The brain controls everything that happens in your body. And that means everything. It is the ultimate authority when it comes to slowly disassembling muscles that aren’t being used. It has been engineered by evolution to make necessary changes to adapt to its environment. If, then, the brain believes the body to be in its “normal” earthly environment, it will not make unusual changes to muscle structure, or physiological changes of any kind.
Therefore, the actual nature of the environment to which the human body is subjected can become a moot point, provided the mind is adequately stimulated to the contrary. Our original functionality can be preserved and even improved upon if a powerful simulation can convince our control center that nothing has changed. It’s a daunting technological challenge, but I believe it feasible, and certainly much easier than freezing people alive.
Of course, without artificially inducing gravity, the sensations on the body itself will be distinct from their earthly counterparts, but the usual glitches of the brain can compensate. Our habit of subconsciously altering subtle inconsistencies in our experience is a well studied phenomenon. Therefore, if the visual and audible effects of the virtual simulation (i.e. objects convincingly accelerating towards the ground at 9.8 m/s and making the corresponding thud) were successful enough to masquerade as reality, the brain may be willing to completely ignore a light feeling of weightlessness in the gut as it grows used to it. In other words, the simulation need not cover all bases; Only enough to let the brain cover the rest. Even if the astronaut is consciously aware that they are in space, the subconscious might believe otherwise in the right circumstances.
Consider the following setup: a chamber is just large enough to fully surround an adult human, with walls far enough apart that they cannot be reached by an astronaut standing in the center. This area should be enough detached from the rest of the spacecraft (which, with the inclusion of this technology, can be quite small) that its atmosphere would not be disturbed by passersby. .A computer of sufficient power connects to a state-of-the-art VR headset and sound equipment. On the floor rests an omnidirectional treadmill, to which the astronaut is by some manner attached (be it lightly magnetic shoes or straps). The astronaut’s movements are tracked with electronics in their suit and relayed, as to maintain the precise function of limbs in the virtual world. For more extended virtual sessions, an IV needle can provide the necessary nutrients and fluid to the user. With the advancement of VR technologies, in my mind, this could become a sufficient accommodation for the delicate human brain and body during long voyages.
There remain several technical details on the topic of convincing virtual reality techniques beyond the scope of this essay. The technology needed to render an environment of normal gravity sufficiently accurately nearly exists if it does not already, but that’s not to say that implementing this system would not have its own engineering challenges. A computer of sufficient power to run such a simulation would require a lot of power and produce excessive waste heat. This can be circumvented by either an on-board nuclear reactor, or a relatively large degree of solar power. The waste heat can possibly be used as a source of heat for the remainder of the ship, at the very least to keep the astronaut in the simulation warm.
There is also the question of duration. Should the astronauts be fully immersed in VR for years at a time, or only for shorter periods, just enough to keep them healthy and sane? It makes sense, for now, to go with the latter. In my mind, a few hours a day “back on earth” would be enough to significantly prolong the shelf life of a human in space. This also allows the technology to undergo trials as it develops, gradually putting people in the system for longer periods of time.
On a bit of an aside, I think it would be very interesting to see various aspects of VR-based suspended animation introduced into mainstream science fiction. It certainly can have a place there, and there are several nuances and complications, ethical and otherwise, to the technology that can make for fascinating settings and stories. Sci-fi writers: time to get cracking!
It’s clear that immersive reality is a compelling alternative to cryostasis when it comes to keeping humans alive and well while on long-term space missions. The current status of immersive virtual reality technology remains inadequate for convincing immersion (https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/latest-developments.html), but given the pace of technological development, we can expect to see the needed improvements in the coming decades. Whether or not it’s ultimately implemented (that is, when we finally get off this rock again), I would be glad to see it further examined. It just might play a critical role in the future of our space program, and even if it does not, its appeal to interest cannot be ignored.
AJ Rise on July 17, 2018