Jul 262020
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Earth spent a lot of time developing a buffet of potentially useful biological structures. For the most part that buffet was designed for Earthlike conditions, which are very different from space. But Earth isn’t all cozy, it’s got some seriously extreme places and lots of just plain weird ones, and life squeezed into pretty much all of them and figured out ways to be life.

So if we wanted to set out to design a being to exist in space, a more perfect astronaut, Earth might be a good place to look for features we’d like to emulate. Also it’s the home of every being we’ve ever known, so it’s really the only references we have for beings. So let’s design a better astronaut from the resources available on Earth.

Our astronaut should be intellectually as capable as us, but physically enriched and optimized to exist in space using features available from Earth’s biosphere. And by ‘existing in space’ I’m not thinking naked void exactly, but also not brain-in-a-jar level encapsulation. I’m aiming for some balance between a body that’s robust to life in space but also optimized to create and manipulate technology needed to live and do interesting work there. It’s hard not to use humans as a template because we really are objectively well suited as engineers with our thumbs and bipedalism and all that. But we’re best suited for engineering on Earth and I’m trying to adapt that same idea to space.

There are two fun copout answers I’d like to get out of the way. First is just tardigrades aka water bears. They’re already pretty well adapted to space, and I’m cynical enough about human intelligence to say they’re within an order of magnitude of humans on the scale of what’s probably out there. Kind of a joke but tardigrade DNA definitely has some impressive features. But I’m going to do more of an organ\limb level assembly, not cellular, except when it’s convenient or funny I guess.

The other cop out answer is just engineer a creature sort of like the encyclopod in Futurama that just already has all the DNA of Earth encoded and can swap out features as needed. That would be the literal zenith of biological evolution- a creature that could consciously command its own genetic change on a biological level and maintain a seamless experience. Of course a lab full of geneticists that experiment on themselves might be effectively the same thing- but I like the idea of a more elegant sort of shapeshifter being that can do it with style. That’s kind of nonsense, but what isn’t, but it’s also just not what I’m doing right now.

This is about an astronaut we might plausibly build from Earth’s biology, if it was plausible to just slap together features into an astronaut. It’s not plausible, but it’s more so than the encyclopod shapeshifter thing, and that’s just what I’m doing.

Okay, so maybe we start with a base platform animal. Obviously the nervous system and brain is crucial to this thing being able to do astronaut things so we kind of have to stick to high order mammals. But most of those are heavily adapted for leg and walking, which isn’t super relevant in space. I’m leaning towards starting with a smallish dolphin body. Give it some thick ape skin or something so it doesn’t dry out because we’re not hauling all that water mass around for habitats. A dolphin body could be modified to support something like a human brain and have a lot of the infrastructure in place already but no unnecessary limbs, you can just start adding what you need like Mr Potato Head. Also their oxygen demands seem a lot more flexible already. It’s tempting to look to photosynthesis or some entirely different energy generation mechanism, but it’s a lot longer road to how that could ever feed the demands of a mammalian brain, and I want to start somewhere more fun and a basic mammal platform does a lot of the work for me. 

And as impressive as human omnivorousness is, it’s not all that useful when you produce all your nutrition in a closed loop anyway. So it’s probably easier to start with something with a simpler digestive system, which it seems like dolphins have with all the fish, but I don’t really know. I’m guessing they could run on a homogenous protein slurry that would be easier to synthesize than a balanced human diet. Then again they might need some complex vitamins that fish have that I’m not accounting for. And though echolocation would be of limited use in space, it seems like the neural processing structures could be useful for some other sense organs so may as well keep those.

So that’s our platform- imagine a stumpy dolphin torso with ape skin, no fins, just a tapered tube with input and output holes. Has an identifiable front, back, top, and bottom, but other than that just a digestive system with a brain.

So obviously we have to start by adding what we need from humans to make this thing an astronaut. Seems like there’s a lot of territory to cover given how many advantages we have on Earth, but I’m actually thinking just the brain. Everything else we do can be done with other animal’s parts, maybe a lot better. So that’s all the humanity we’re going to need from homo sapiens, just a gross, wrinkly, mushy, brain, maybe even just the outer layers.

Those hands were pretty useful though, gotta figure out something with extremely fine dexterity but still pretty strong for their size. I want to say tentacles but those are pretty demanding to control and I’m not sure a more under articulated but rigid structure couldn’t do a better job. But tentacles do have a lot of great sensory use, so hard to ignore them. Do we need bones? Okay- so I could spend all day on the possibilities for manipulators to replace the human hand. And honestly there are so many possibilities there might not be a truly optimum configuration, so I’m just going to put one together that I like, and leave it at that.

It’s going to be two muscular ‘trunks’ similar to but smaller than an elephant’s, each terminating in a 3-fingered ‘hand’ consisting of tentacled fingers, and a claw extending from the wrist on one arm. The claw is modelled on the function of a Mantis shrimp’s powerful smasher claw. Not really a defensive feature, but can produce extreme force on a small area, so seems like it could be useful for a lot of situations in space. Also dangerous as hell, but hey- you’re in space. The trunk has a bone structure of interconnected ball-socket joints capable of moving freely, or being locked in a straight configuration with a twisting mechanism at each joint when more leverage is needed. That last part isn’t in nature to my knowledge, but I figure we can modify bone’s mechanical function somewhat. I’m tempted to pack a bunch of extra cool sensors on those manipulator limbs, but I think that brings the danger of damaging them, so I’m inclined to leave the manipulators as touch sensors only just like human hands.

We obviously don’t need feet or legs, but we do have to get around somehow. So we’ll need to either grab and push off stuff, or be able to move enough air to propel ourselves around. We already have manipulators, but I think we need to keep those free for work, so we should probably have another push\grab\anchor limb. Seems like a one-legged bird could do most of that, so let’s use one of those for a third limb, two seems unnecessary. Birds also have wings we could use to propel ourselves, but that’s massive overkill in 0 gravity. I would like some thrust potential though. So let’s give it a kind of kangaroo pouch that it can pull inside-out and hold tight with its manipulator limbs and flap it to generate directional thrust. Also having a pouch seems handy, maybe we’ll do a couple of those like side pockets and the ‘hands can pull out each one and use them like webbed gloves sewn onto their hips.

So now we have a dolphin stump with ape skin, two crazy trunks with claw\tentacle hands, one bird leg, and hideous skin sacks it can pull out to move air. That’s a good start I think.

The front of the dolphin is just a food intake orifice. But of course we need sensors. If you’ve listened to many of these essays you might know what’s coming next. Articulated eye stalks. I did a thing on how awesome those are and why so I won’t go into it here, but that’s going to be the primary vision and audio sensory apparatus.

I don’t want to stop at the usual five human senses though. That seems like where we can really maximize the potential that evolution gave us. 

I’ve already brought up mantis shrimp, but they have a lot of great features to borrow. We’re going to pretty much steal their entire optical system. All the advantages of the stalks, plus the hyperspectral range, the polarization filtering, and anything else they have that we haven’t figured out or I don’t know about. Just copy\paste the entire ‘eye’ folder from their DNA, plus all the drivers and apps.

I want to push that hyperspectral range even further, so we’re going to throw in some pit viper DNA to be able to sense thermal radiation. Might be hard to integrate those on the stalks through so we’ll just have one big heat sensing region between where the eyes were before we put them on stalks. 

Ears are a tough call- I want maximum range of pressure and vibration sensing, but I also want a robust structure that won’t pop easily in changing pressures. There’s a lot to choose from, but I figure there’s got to be a way to combine the best of a bat and a whale to allow sensing from extremely low to extremely high frequency vibrations. And whatever that sensory organ is- put it in a fatty cone thing with a sphincter that can close up entirely to protect it when pressures get too high. Yeah- I’m kind of phoning in the ears. I don’t know that we even need them, but I can’t reason out why we don’t exactly so I’m just winging it. I think we only need one ear though. Localizing sound probably isn’t as critical in space habitats. So that goes next to the heat sensor thing.

Chemical senses always seem useful, but that’s from our experience with humans in space with technology we’re just figuring out made of materials we barely understand that interact with our bodies in ways we can’t predict. I’m thinking once we’ve mastered technology to the point that we’re building astronaut bodies and closed loop environments for them to live in, maybe they won’t have as much of a need to smell when things might be burning. I might be creating a huge problem for future space travellers, but I’m going to say let’s just forgo biological chemical sensors altogether. If they can’t build technology they need to survive that doesn’t include its own failure sensors, they’re not going to last long anyway.

Foregoing chemical senses does simplify things, but it also seems a tragic waste of the rich variety of available biological chemical sensing mechanisms, but a lot of that is only advantageous in a complex, dynamic, and unpredictable chemical environment, which a space habitat should be anything but. So no more noses, kind of sucks, also some conveniences to an absence of smell in a closed environment.

So now our astro-freak can make energy from food and oxygen, move about in zero gravity, manipulate objects, and sense a useful range of radiation and vibrations. What else can we use?

Probably could use some kind of advanced rotational orientation mechanism, but I think most of those are designed for gravity, so I’m thinking that might just have to be adapted from the vision system. Vision is going to be pretty important though so I’m tempted to beef that up.

Apparently squid skin has some light detection ability. I’m going to propose it could be adapted for orientation and movement tracking independent of the primary vision system. If the skin itself can be a wide field, low resolution camera- it can use it as a reference to track its motion fairly efficiently. As long as the light field in an area is consistent or the cyclical changes can be predicted, once the being has a good light field map it can correlate its orientation in that field.

That’s all the sensory bonuses I can think of right now, there’s probably more, but as much variety as there is on Earth, it’s sensory focus is kind of limited. I’d love to include radio reception but can’t find a radio shack in nature. Oh… actually we should toss in magnetic sense if we can. Apparently even humans have proteins that can respond to magnetic fields, but no nervous infrastructure to detect those changes. So not sure on the specifics, but some way to detect magnetic fields would probably have some use.

From there it’s just miscellaneous tools. I could think of interesting things we could do with a spider’s silk gland, or something with a bombardier beetle’s defenses for a biological thruster, but it isn’t anything we couldn’t make into a separate technology. Of course the extreme end of that gets us back to the brain-in-a-jar solution, but I’m still using human success as engineers on Earth as a template.

Though there is one step towards the brain-in-a-jar that makes sense even if you really don’t want to go there. Might as well accept that in a lot of ways the astronaut’s modified body is just a biological brain-in-a-jar, so let’s add a screw-on lid so we don’t have to crack the jar to adjust the fluid levels. Add some kind of ‘bio-interface ports’ that allow sampling or transfer of some critical biological materials. Maybe one for blood, one for spinal fluid, one digestive, etc. Maybe just a thick membrane with a skin flap cover with no nerve endings to generate pain. Something like that.

So let’s see what we’ve got. It’s a stumpy dolphin body with ape skin that is also light sensing somehow, two trunk\claw\tentacles appendages, one bird leg, invertible pockets that double as hand webbings for flapping propulsion, a central thermal and pressure vibration sensing area on its head. Articulated eyestalks with all the capability of a mantis shrimp’s vision system. No nose. Maybe some magnetic sense ability. And a bio port.

I intentionally left out reproduction because these things are clearly already dead sexy and don’t need any help in that department. Actually I’m just thinking once you’re intentionally and successfully swapping out entire body parts via DNA to maximize function it doesn’t make much sense to start shuffling code with biological reproduction again. Self-cloning might have a place, but I figure just use the machine that made you.

I forgot about speech, but- I’m not sure we need that even. Of course language is necessary, but spoken words- well, I’m torn. Audio does have great ‘broadcast’ features, but how much do you need to broadcast in a space habitat? Just seems like a visual communication system is far more effective. You can still take advantage of the sound’s ‘broadcast’ abilities by just banging on something or farting to get people’s attention or convey simple ideas, then when you have their attention and need to get specific use a visual language. Between those trunk hands and the articulated eyestalks their sign-language could be every bit as rich and as wide a bandwidth as vocal communication if not far more. And there’s always writing and drawing pictures and symbols.

Actually I’ve thought a lot about communication in space and really what you want is redundancy. I think future astronauts should be able to communicate effectively by sign, touch sign, semaphore language, morse code, and probably some other stuff I haven’t thought of. The idea is to allow communication through every conceivable medium or complication that astronauts might have a need to communicate through. But that’s another conversation, this is about bioengineering astronauts.

Or it was about bioengineering astronauts, since I think I’m about done. I might come back later and play with the spider silk gland idea and stuff like that. But as far as designing a biological astronaut using Earth biology that’s functionally as well advantaged for space as humans are for Earth, but without starting from the cellular level, this is what I got. I personally think our freakish dolphin monster is quite adorable in its own way, but I’m a little biased.

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