Natural and Artificial Flavors Added

The label read, “Natural and Artificial Flavors Added.” So, I put it back. Artificial, we’ve been told, is just not good for you. We are almost at the same place with artificial intelligence. Alarm bells go off there as well, except in the form of Nobel laureates prognosticating about the dangers of A.I. There are also the occasional cautionary tweets on this from the billionaire who builds Starships and electric cars.

This is especially odd, as A.I.s are already everywhere. We have A.I.s in the justice system advising judges, in medicine translating protein sequences into images, and soon enough designing chips. I have a primitive A.I. called Alexa on my desk as I write, with another in the kitchen. I’m waiting for the day when I ask Alexa, “Are you sentient yet” and I get the answer, “did you call me primitive?”

The first A.I. most people befriended was probably Google, not even knowing this was an A.I. Like Yellow #5 it’s just there, and no one notices it anymore. Yet mixed with all the warnings on A.I., there is so much promise.

It’s easy to imagine an A.I. taking the protein crystals grown in space and revealing their structure, enabling a vaccine sooner rather than later. I’ve written before about my employing a primitive A.I. to explore the design space for reusable launch vehicles.

Here is where “artificial” is good for you.

And then there is artificial gravity. Somehow gravity being artificial is never a problem. In sci-fi, it’s a common trope, a necessity to avoid hanging your cast from cables all day. The dialog around artificial gravity is more convincing every day. Mention how any sufficiently advanced society will have technology that looks like magic. Add in some pop-sci with some real-sci and we can imagine the floor of a spaceship (or “down”) coursing with some field we learned to control, emitting gravitons at will. But, first, we have to find gravitons, if they exist, and figure out how to create them artificially. That is, without the mass of a planet beneath our feet.

A picture of a "Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch," Zachary Manchester, Carnegie Mellon University
Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch, Zachary Manchester, Carnegie Mellon University

As artificial as that sounds, given the effects of space travel on the human body, “artificial” gravity sounds excellent. Adverse health effects from an extended lack of gravity are too often under-appreciated in our quest to explore. There’s muscle atrophy, mitochondrial dysfunction, and even liver stress of a level that might cause genetic changes. Long-term, your vision may never be quite the same ever again.

Here is where “artificial” is good for you. “Artificial Gravity Added.” Grab that box! Sadly, NASA is not doing much in the field of artificial gravity. In NASA’s defense, our mastery over gravitons is at least a few generations away (if they exist). Closer around the corner, a spacecraft would use a large enough structure to spin, the force outward acting as artificial gravity. Think of how a bucket full of water, spun on a rope fast enough, holds water in, even up-side-down. Or reminisce about the spinning room in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave Bowman doing laps round and round.

A picture of an astronaut running laps on a spaceship in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a single scene, Kubrick captured A.I., artificial gravity and Torpor (stasis), to list a few advances, in his vision of our future.
Running laps in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a single scene, Kubrick captured A.I. in space, artificial gravity and torpor (stasis), to list a few advances, in his vision of our spacefaring future. For A.I. applications in space see Space Industry Overview by CiRG Labs, New Delhi, India; for NASA and artificial gravity see Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch; for inducing torpor (stasis) on long duration spaceflight see Advancing Torpor Inducing Transfer Habitats for Human Stasis to Mars, NIAC Phase II report.

I have the privilege of providing external council on some NASA research – the “NIAC.” NIAC is part of NASA’s really long-term thinking. Our portfolio has a project on large structures for artificial gravity. So here you first work on the technology and challenges of a large space structure, then something large enough to spin would follow.

There are alternatives, of course, and no one knows how our exploration beyond Earth will pan out, or even if. For example, we could get to Mars using nuclear propulsion, avoiding some of the adverse effects of a lack of gravity by shortening trip times. Either way, any solutions have to figure out how to shield the crew from radiation, having left the relative safety of Earth orbit and its protective magnetic field. Space is a cruel, cold place, in no way obligated to us.

Closer to our time, real-live soil will be among the most precious commodities for people in space, alongside water, propellant, and that spare CO2 filter.

There is another concept NIAC has on our plate right now, making soil. All-natural, 100% old-fashioned soil. If you are onboard the Starship Discovery, a replicator will make that salad for you (and the plate, fork, and napkin). The replicated greens are nutritious, maybe even more than the real thing, Starfleet scientists being pretty good at this. (Except for alcohol, but that appears to be a policy choice.)

A notional picture of "Making Soil for Space Habitats by Seeding Asteroids with Fungi," Jane Shevtsov, Trans Astronautica Corporation
Making Soil for Space Habitats by Seeding Asteroids with Fungi, Jane Shevtsov, Trans Astronautica Corporation

Closer to our time, real-live soil will be among the most precious commodities for people in space, alongside water, propellant, and that spare CO2 filter. Here, instead of taking all the soil you need with you, you take fungi instead. Mixed with lunar regolith and nutrients, the fungi will create living soil. But, again, there are alternatives, as with our little problem with gravity, not wanting to have our astronauts looked upon like early sea-farers with scurvy. (Need fruit, obviously!) Chemistry is a beautiful thing, and if you are old enough (OK, very old), you saw Dr. Maureen Robinson Lost in Space at the hydroponics trays.

My wife and I at the KSC simulated experimental plant growth display (on the occasion of my 30 years at NASA.)

Imagine making our own soil in space. How wonderful would it be if we could avoid connecting the dry astronaut food to chemistry and trays and avoid a vast amount of mass to launch as well? Again, no one knows how our exploration beyond Earth will pan out. But we won’t get there by avoiding the hard questions, the real challenges of space travel, for one-day living years or a lifetime in space.

Some of what happens will seem artificial, whether it’s an A.I. managing space traffic, advising on a spacecraft’s health, or creating gravity. Some of what happens may find a natural solution is the most elegant, looking beyond engineering to biology and life sciences. Wild ideas are wild until they are the baseline. Natural and Artificial flavors could be just what’s needed.

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