In Star Trek: The Next Generation the intrepid crew of the United Starship Enterprise repeatedly face the Borg, cyborgs intent on assimilating the biological creatures of the universe into their collective consciousness. Their meme, “resistance is futile,” serves as a convenient tagline for this ongoing plot device in the fictional series, but it also may foreshadow a more realistic future for humanity as we reach into space. When considering the far future and the potential for humans to colonize other bodies in the solar system and beyond, perhaps humanity will adapt to the space environment through modifications of the human body like those found on the Borg.
This idea was first broached by scientists Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in a 1960 NASA study. They remarked: “Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space.” They proposed a variety of modifications that would allow humans to withstand radiation, the absence of atmospheric oxygen, and other hazards of space. They coined the term “cyborg” to describe this adaptation.
Since that time, NASA has refrained from serious consideration of the ideas offered by Clynes and Kline, although a few studies in the 1960s investigated these possibilities. But what of the future, especially the distant future? To date, human presence in space has consisted of what might be characterized as extended camping trips, often a week or more but rarely exceeding a half year in length. Yet space advocates continue to propose far lengthier stays, from planetary outposts to solar system colonization.
If colonization of the solar system, and the rest of the galaxy, is truly desirable, will it be done by Homo sapiens? In undertaking this cosmic venture, humans might change, especially if very long periods of time are involved. Humans born and raised on extraterrestrial locations would change naturally in response to different conditions. Given advances in biotechnology, others might reengineer themselves. The current debate over the superiority of humans versus robots in space could disappear in the presence of such alterations.
A provocative possibility appears in the rapid rise of biotechnology, suggesting that humans may become cyborgs through the application of sophisticated machinery in ways at least initially unrelated to space exploration. In many ways we are already there, with millions of people enjoying a better quality of life, or in some cases life itself, through the incorporation of pacemakers, joint and limb replacements, cochlear hearing implants, artificial organs, and a potential list of even more sophisticated enhancements. Future possibilities are astonishing.
How might we remake the human body to more effectively meet the rigors of space exploration? Skeptics may scoff at this possibility as nothing more than bioscience fiction, but space exploration was itself fiction in the truest sense of the word less than 75 years ago. Advances in biotechnology could take place with similar speed.
The result, given sufficient time, may be the emergence of a new age of space exploration. Technological developments now beginning to take place might permit a true merger—humans equipped with robotic parts or machines possessing sentient qualities. In that sense, humans and robots would explore space together—really together.
The implications of such developments for the future of space exploration are fascinating. They are made more interesting when one considers the degree to which humans might change during the millions of years available to colonize the galaxy. Who knows what derivations of the human form could emerge? Such developments would alter the traditional debate over space exploration in ways that provide a new paradigm quite different than the one casting humans with all of their biological limitations into the extraterrestrial realm. Such developments might make space travel more attainable, though in unconventional ways.
So, is there a Borg in our future? Possibly; even probably. In fact, we may already be there with all of the biotechnological enhancements now routinely offered to human beings. This possibility, moving as it does away from the necessity of maintaining organic life under Earth-like conditions throughout the cosmos, offers a fascinating option for space travel. If we did not require Earth-like conditions to survive, our ability to colonize strikingly diverse non-Earth-like worlds would expand. Many spheres, including those within the local solar system not currently suitable for human occupation, might prove acceptable. Is it possible that once cyborgs emerge—and undertake space travel—they will shoulder the burden of carrying the essence of humanity to other worlds? Resistance may be futile, if the Borg really are us. But they need not be feared.
Roger D. Launius is senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum. Howard E. McCurdy is professor of public affairs at the American University,Washington, D.C. They pubished Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), from which the ideas here are taken.