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    Genetically Engineering Humans for Space: Ethical Odyssey or Science Fiction?

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    Chandra X-ray Image of NGC 1385
    Chandra X-ray Image of NGC 1385 by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    From the spellbinding vastness of the cosmos to the microscopic enigmas of DNA, science continuously unveils chapters of an endless odyssey.

    Hubble finds a black hole igniting star formation in a dwarf galaxy” by europeanspaceagency is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The latest narrative twist could emerge not from a nebula or black hole, but from the fusion of human cells with DNA of the hardiest microscopic survivors on Earth: tardigrades.

    two spiral galaxy like objects in the sky
    Photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope on Unsplash

    This is not the plot of a science fiction novel, but an actual scientific endeavor aimed at preparing humans for life beyond our planet.

    Spiral Galaxies “Ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs)
    Spiral Galaxies “Ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    The concept of bioengineering humans to endure the harsh realities of space may sound like the musings of Arthur C. Clarke, but it has a solid scientific foundation. Geneticist Chris Mason of Weill Cornell University in New York has been on the forefront of genetic studies in space.

    Mason spearheaded research analyzing the year-long space station sojourn of astronaut Scott Kelly and his Earth-bound twin brother, Mark Kelly.

    Icy Dunes on Pluto Reveal a Diverse and Dynamic Dwarf Planet” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    By comparing their biological changes, scientists gained invaluable insights into the impact of space on the human body.

    a very bright orange object in the middle of the night sky
    Photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope on Unsplash

    One of the most intriguing propositions Mason raises involves integrating human cells with tardigrade DNA.

    Chandra Finds Evidence for Serial Black Hole Eruptions (ngc5813)” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    These micro-animals are celebrated for their survival capabilities in extreme conditions, including the vacuum of space. If we could imbue human cells with tardigrade resilience, astronauts might withstand the rigors of cosmic radiation and other space perils with greater ease.

    Saturn X-rays Pose Puzzles (Redux: NASA, Chandra, 03/08/04)
    Saturn X-rays Pose Puzzles (Redux: NASA, Chandra, 03/08/04) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    This idea of genetic manipulation, while groundbreaking, is laced with controversy and ethical quandaries.

    NASA Selects Mission to Study Black Holes, Cosmic X-ray Mysteries” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    The journey from concept to human application is paved with decades of research, trials, and ethical considerations. “I don’t have any plans of having engineered astronauts in the next one to two decades,” says Mason.

    Pluto ‘Paints’ its Largest Moon Red” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    He envisions a 20-year trajectory of pure discovery and validation before potentially crafting a human better suited for Mars survival.

    a very large spiral shaped object in the sky
    Photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope on Unsplash

    The radiation challenge is paramount for space travel, especially on missions to Mars. Genetic modifications may not only bolster astronaut defenses against such exposure but could also prove invaluable in treating radiation-induced damage during cancer therapies on Earth.

    X-ray & Optical Image of DEM L71
    X-ray & Optical Image of DEM L71 by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    In the shadow of these futuristic endeavors, the ethical landscape is as complex as the science itself. The idea of altering the human genome raises profound questions about our evolution, identity, and the very nature of human liberty.

    The aim, however, is not to create a new species but to expand the human potential for survival across planets without compromising our ability to thrive on Earth.

    an image of a very large and colorful object in the sky
    Photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope on Unsplash

    Advancements in genetic engineering, such as CRISPR–Cas9, are rapidly progressing towards clinical applications. Already, CRISPR technology has been leveraged to edit the genomes of organisms across various species, bringing genetic therapy for human diseases closer to reality.

    The implications of these technologies stretch from treating genetic disorders to possibly eradicating viruses like HIV from human cells.

    WASP-18b: A 'Hot Jupiter' (September2014)
    WASP-18b: A ‘Hot Jupiter’ (September2014) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    As science treads this new frontier, the story unravels with cautionary diligence. Mason notes, “It’s not if we evolve; it’s when we evolve,” underscoring the inevitability of change.

    Huge Rings Around a Black Hole” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    The ethical, philosophical, and scientific discussions surrounding this evolution are set to intensify as the potential of genetic engineering comes closer to transforming the human condition in ways once confined to the realms of cosmic science fiction.

    Earth from the ISS: English Channel
    Earth from the ISS: English Channel by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Relevant articles:
    Can We Genetically Engineer Humans to Survive Missions to Mars?, Space.com
    Gene Therapy and Genetic Engineering, University of Missouri School of Medicine
    Can Genetic Engineering Help Humans Live In Space?, Science Friday
    Epigenome Engineering in Cancer: Fairytale or a Realistic Path to the Clinic?, National Institutes of Health (NIH) (.gov)

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