In this episode of the Futurist Society, host Dr. Awesome welcomes astrobiologist Dr. Graham Lau. Dr. Lau discusses his interdisciplinary background in biology, chemistry, astrophysics, and geology, and elaborates on his research into the potential for life on Mars, Europa, and Enceladus. He also delves into his role in science communication, his philosophical approach to astrobiology, and the concept of the overview effect. The conversation explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence aiding in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the potential for human exploration and colonization of other planets, and the future advancements in health and longevity. Tune in to gain insights into the future of astrobiology and what the future may hold for humanity both on Earth and beyond.

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The Future Of AI, Technical Debt, And Science Fiction – A Conversation With Christian Hammer

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Futurist Society. As always, I am your host, Doctor Awesome. We are talking in the present, but talking about the future. Today, I have a very special guest with me, Doctor Graham Lau. He’s an astrobiologist and a science communicator. He’s interested in many different fields and has a lot of thoughts on the future. Thank you so much for being with us. Graham, can you tell us a little bit about your work in astrobiology?

Meet Dr. Graham Lau: Astrobiologist Extraordinaire

Yeah. First off, it’s awesome to join you, Doctor Awesome, and to join your audience here. I am an astrobiologist. I started off not really knowing where I would be going. I ended up getting degrees in biology and chemistry, studying astrophysics for a while, and then earning a PhD in geology. Most of my research through my studies was in the realm of geochemistry and how life interacts with the environment and how we can use microbial populations in certain polar environments, for instance, to look for life on Mars, Europa, or Enceladus. Since finishing my PhD many years ago, I’ve focused a lot more on communicating science and more on the conceptual issues in astrobiology. Should we be creating messages to send to alien life? If we create messages, how do we do that? These are the kinds of topics in the realm of education, communication, and philosophy of astrobiology. I also serve as the director of communications and marketing for a nonprofit called Blue Marble Space, which is a forward-thinking organization focused on topics like sustainability, envisioning our Earth as one planet, and all of us sharing the world together. We advocate for astronauts to take one flag into space to represent all of us instead of all of our different national flags and things like that. Additionally, I’m a researcher with our research institution, the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. On top of that, I wear a bunch of other hats, too. I get to host a cool show for NASA called Ask an Astrobiologist. I get to talk to really awesome people like yourself and your audience.

The Future of Astrobiology - A Conversation with Dr. Graham Lau

Thank you so much for being with us here today. There are so many things I want to talk with you about. Blue Marble Space has a particular interest in the overview effect, which we’re going to get to, as I feel it’s necessary when discussing the future. But honestly, when I first started learning about you, I thought that just the word “astrobiologist” was so cool. It’s like the juxtaposition of two awesome words in and of themselves. I didn’t know that was a field to begin with. It’s like one of those fields where you hear the name and feel like a guitar riff should go off in the background. Astrobiologist. When I think about you, I think if there was an alter ego for a celestial superhero, that would be Graham Lau. I feel like you’re Thor on the weekends, and Graham Lau is the alter ego for this really awesome person outside of what he does on a regular basis. When I got to know more about you, it pretty much matched up with that. On your website, you mention training to be a Jedi Knight and your love for Star Wars, which I really appreciate, as you can see from the background behind me. Specifically, I wanted to talk with you about the idea of carving yourself out a niche in this field that I didn’t even know existed. It sounds like you got there through a roundabout path. I’m sure there are lots of kids and even adults out there thinking, “Oh, that’s something awesome. I didn’t know it existed.” How did you create this space for yourself? Did you always know this was where you wanted to go? How did you create the space you’re working in right now?

Journey into Astrobiology

Yeah. The word astrobiology, in the scientific sense, implies understanding the origins, evolution, and distribution of life. But as I often say on my own show and in my work, for me, it really is our quest to understand the nature of life, which includes not only science and engineering but also a lot of philosophy and consciousness studies, trying to understand things like life, intelligence, and consciousness. It brings together everything we’re doing across all of humanity to try to understand who we are and where we’ve come from. These are really old questions. They’re questions our ancestors pondered long ago, most likely before the written word. Our ancestors were looking at the stars and wondering what they were—what else might be out there? Are there other tribes in the distance? Should we go meet them, talk to them, and learn who they are? Are there ways to explore the natural world and learn more about our place in the cosmos?

In many ways, astrobiology is, for me, the culminating study, a field of trying to understand life in the universe. I will admit that I was very young when I started learning about some of these topics. I got really interested in science fiction. I loved Star Wars as a kid. I loved Star Trek as a kid. I read a lot of science fiction novels. I love the Dune series and a bunch of other books in the realm of older sci-fi that got a lot of us thinking about these things, but also modern sci-fi as well. Fantastic.

But yes, as a young person, I wanted to know: are aliens out there? Can we meet them one day? Will we ever be on spaceships, flying to other worlds, and meeting other beings? And if so, what does that tell us about ourselves and our own place in the universe? In many ways, we are still a very young species, young in the sense of our biological evolution and young in the sense of our technological development as well. A lot of us wonder what more is possible out there. All of my various interests in science and academia, along with history, philosophy, and culture, culminated in getting involved in this really cool field of study.

Astrobiology is not a single discipline. We have biology, chemistry, and medicine, each with its own sub-disciplines and specializations. Astrobiology is a larger, all-encompassing field of study that brings together so much different knowledge. That’s one thing that really drew me towards it. I was always a jack-of-all-trades kind of person. I love doing a lot of different things. I was really enamored with this idea that we could come together to explore our place in the universe.

Astrobiology is a larger, all-encompassing field of study that brings together so much different knowledge

So I’m going to ask you, the elephant in the room. Is there life in our universe outside of Earth? I feel like I would be remiss if I did not ask an astrobiologist right off the bat. How do you feel about this pressing question?

Yeah, I’m glad you also added it. How do I feel about it? That’s a really important distinction. From what we know right now, we have no evidence yet of life beyond Earth. We’ve had these little hints and blips of data along the way, like the Wow! signal. We’ve had potential findings about things like phosphine on Venus. And now we’re starting to look at the atmospheres of exoplanets. But we really have not yet discovered definitive evidence of alien life beyond Earth. That tells us a couple of things.

One, if we’re thinking logically and using reason, we have to admit to ourselves that we could be alone. That is one possibility. But it feels like a very slim possibility because, as we explore the cosmos, we’ve been using telescopes for well over 400 years now. We’re sending spacecraft to other worlds and learning more. We’re building these giant next-generation space telescopes that are peering into the atmospheres of other worlds. We’ve discovered over 5,000 exoplanets beyond our solar system. Finding all of this tells us that our place in the cosmos isn’t as grand as we once thought. We’re not the center of the universe, as far as we know. There seem to be not only a large number of stars—maybe a hundred billion billion or more—because we have roughly 100 to 400 billion stars in our own galaxy. And we know that there are probably about 100 billion other galaxies out there.

Even with the exoplanets we’ve found so far—5,000 plus exoplanets—all within a very small area of our own galaxy, just based on the numbers alone, it tells us there should be probably 500 billion, maybe a trillion, or more planets in our galaxy. When you start getting numbers like that—just the sheer number of possible worlds where life could originate and survive—it starts to feel very likely that there’s alien life out there. And so, I am more optimistic. I do think that we’re not alone. I don’t know why we haven’t met alien life yet or found it. I do think it’s going to happen in our future.

I honestly feel like we’re on this really interesting cusp of our technological development—building these fantastic space telescopes and enormous ground-based telescopes. Now we’re using things like machine learning and artificial intelligence to help us better understand the data. It feels like if there is other life out there, anywhere near us in the galaxy, it’s only a matter of time until we have sufficient evidence to say, Yes, it’s out there.

It feels like if there is other life out there, anywhere near us in the galaxy, it’s only a matter of time until we have sufficient evidence to say, “Yes, it’s out there.”

So there’s so much opportunity for evidence. There are probably thousands of experiments that a layperson might not even know are going on. You see a lot of these science fiction shows that depict first contact with some sort of higher intelligence. But it could be as small as a bacterium, right? It could be something that exists on Mars that has a very small number of cells, like maybe a single-celled organism or even something smaller. Of all the opportunities for evidence, which one do you think is the most compelling from your perspective? How do you feel it will be introduced to the general population? Which experiment is most likely to have an impact factor? Will everybody start thinking about this differently?

Yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of different scenarios under which a significant detection of life on another world might happen. It could be fossilized bacteria from the surface of Mars or even extant life currently living in the subsurface of Mars. Some of us believe that if Mars ever had life, it could still have life deep in its subsurface. There are also other worlds in our solar system, like Venus, which we’re still unsure about. With Venus, there could be a biosphere in its clouds. It seems unlikely, but some people have posited that and want to explore it more, and it’s worth looking into.

Then there are icy worlds in our solar system, like Europa and Enceladus, that have these subsurface oceans overridden by huge icy crusts. If life can originate in an ocean, which we don’t know for sure, then maybe the ocean worlds of our solar system and other star systems are the most replete with life out there.

With all the exoplanets we’re finding and examining their atmospheres, we might find signs of systematic chemistry within an atmosphere—not just the presence of oxygen, but maybe oxygen, methane, and other gases intermixed in such a way that it seems very likely a biosphere must have created it. But then, on top of that, we have this other realm called technosignatures. I’m wondering if the most significant life detection might happen here first.

If we find possible signs of ancient metabolism occurring on Mars or things that look like microfossils from a Martian rock sample that we bring back to Earth, for instance, it will still take a lot of work and time to be sure. We need multiple lines of evidence that all say, “Sure, this is life.” Even for an exoplanet atmosphere, if we find different gases, one of the first things we’ll do if we think it could be a biosphere is try to figure out what non-biological processes might explain that kind of chemistry. It’s important to think through all possible answers without just saying yes to life.

But technosignatures, which are signs of technological activity, could be one of the most diagnostic ways to say, “Yeah, those are aliens.” That could mean them coming here tomorrow and showing up in giant spacecraft like in Independence Day, which could be terrible and terrifying. It could be us meeting them out in the cosmos as we start to leave our own solar system. Or it could be us finding signs of their technology, such as messages transmitted through space via radio or optical signals. It could be, as some colleagues of mine have suggested, finding signs of industrial gases on an exoplanet.

We can look for things like oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, and dimethyl sulfide in exoplanet atmospheres. But what if we find something like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)? Here on Earth, up until the mid-1980s, we were releasing CFCs that were destroying our ozone layer. It was one of the first signs of humans working on a large international scale to sign the Montreal Protocol that helped us to hinder releasing those CFCs. But maybe there are alien civilizations out there releasing industrial gases that can’t be explained through any non-biological process.

There’s also the chance, as some have argued, that maybe we’ll find some piece of alien hardware, like a remnant spaceship or something like that. I think for your audience, if they’ve enjoyed science fiction, maybe they’ve seen2001: A Space Odyssey” or read the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s based on an earlier short story Clarke wrote called “The Sentinel”, where he suggests that maybe aliens have been watching us for a long time to see our evolution and have left some hardware in our solar system to watch what’s happening.

Of course, that sounds like science fiction. It feels far-fetched. But it’s something we can actually test. We can look in our own solar system and see if we find signs of alien technology. So it’s worth being open scientifically to that possibility, especially since finding any technological signature might be far more diagnostic for saying, “Yeah, that’s alien life.”

Avi Loeb, the guy at Harvard, I had a podcast with him a couple of weeks ago, and he thinks he found products of some sort of industrial manufacturing. He says these little spherules came from an interstellar source, crash-landed in the ocean, and now he’s obtained them. He claims there’s no way they could have come from Earth and no way they could have been made without some sort of industrial process. Number one, do you believe him? Number two, do you think the most likely way we’re going to find life is through this idea you’re bringing up, which is signs of technological progress, or are we going to find some single-celled bacteria on Mars? Will that be the first one?

Yeah, great questions. Avi is a very interesting character. He’s a great scientist and a professor at Harvard. He’s also embroiled himself with various members of the scientific community, especially in astrobiology, and particularly with geologists and planetary scientists. Avi comes from an astrophysics background and is now exploring some of these more conceptual ideas in astrobiology and what might be possible with any alien technology coming to our solar system.

So, for the audience that doesn’t know, Avi has suggested that the interstellar visitor called Oumuamua, which was discovered from telescopes in Hawaii (hence the name being based on Hawaiian history and culture), is, to the best of our knowledge, an interstellar object—cometary, asteroidal, or something different. We’re not quite sure. There’s a lot of great research out there from planetary scientists who have looked at it and have some good ideas of what it might be and what it might be composed of. It came screaming into our solar system super fast. We are now at a time where we can measure these things. Most likely, we’ve had lots of these things over the eons coming in and out of our solar system, but this was the first thing we could really say diagnostically is an interstellar visitor, given the way it was coming in and the kind of trajectory it had around our solar system. Now it’s traveling back out of our solar system very quickly.

There’s a great graphic I shared on my own Twitter/X profile from Pascal Lee of the SETI Institute and Mars Institute. He has some really cool images showing all the different things we’ve sent out into space, but also all of the known interstellar objects and their current distances from Earth. Definitely worth having a look at.

In Avi Loeb’s case, he has suggested that Oumuamua might be a piece of alien hardware, possibly a technological signature, perhaps a solar sail, one of these technologies that allows us to use solar radiation or stellar radiation as a means of propulsion. To be fair, I will say that I’m highly skeptical of that conclusion myself. I haven’t seen really good data to support that. I think it makes a lot of sense for it to just be another rock from space, basically, whether it’s asteroidal, cometary, or something different that we don’t currently have in our solar system. It’s certainly up for debate. The problem is, we really didn’t get enough data to say much more as it was coming in and going out. There have been proposals to send a spacecraft to try to catch up to it. I don’t think that will happen. I think we’re better off right now preparing future spacecraft for other interstellar visitors so we can catch them when they come and get a close-up flyby or rendezvous in orbit to see what these things are.

Because of some of his contentious ideas, Avi has also embroiled himself in some ways in the community. His idea of one of these interstellar objects impacting the Earth has some great data. He and his team have presented some great data suggesting it was an interstellar object. There’s military data to support that. I do know some others who have argued that maybe it was something like a truck revving up near one of the seismic sensors they used to suggest it was interstellar, given the velocity it impacted the Earth with.

As a geologist, I can say spherules are common all around the world, especially in the ocean. There are lots of different ways we form these little microspherules geologically. As others have pointed out, especially geologist and planetary scientist Steve Desch, the spherules Avi and his team found could likely be fly ash from industrial processes here on Earth that have gotten into the ocean. That seems like a far more likely explanation. However, I will admit myself: I’m certainly willing to consider various opinions, look at the data, and see what’s there. Is that an interstellar object? Did it come to Earth and bring any signs of alien technology? That’s a big question. I don’t think there’s any real way to conclude that currently, given the spherules that were discovered.

But I think Avi’s ideas are interesting. Even if he’s upset some people in the community, I think the ideas are worth exploring. Personally, I think astrobiology is one of the coolest realms of human thought. It’s also one of those places that could change our entire future tomorrow. If we find signs of alien life, it could change everything. If we meet alien life and intelligence, that could certainly change so much about our civilization and our biosphere. It doesn’t hurt us to look and see what’s possible out there. But I think, as in all things, we should always be skeptical of anyone’s data, especially when they say they have signs of alien life. We should certainly interrogate those signs and make sure that it really is alien life.

The Overview Effect and Human Unity

Yeah, it’s certainly compelling, right? Like, it’s so addictive every time I see an article about it, and I have to click on new signs of life in this field, new signs of life in that field. It’s something that I feel like it just speaks to nearly everyone that I talk to, even those who are skeptical. It’s certainly become a lot more mainstream, the question of whether we’re the only life in our solar system. But I wanted to really take it back to why it’s so compelling. And the reason, I think, is that it makes all of us think that we are one tribe again, like we’re all on the same team. And I think that’s a really important feeling, something that you guys are promoting with the overview effect in all the different organizations you’re a part of. I’d like you to speak to that because I feel like everybody’s looking for that, and yet very few of us will actually be able to see it. For those of you who don’t know, the overview effect is when astronauts go up into orbit, look down on Earth, and experience this overwhelming emotion of realizing that we’re all connected, that the divisions we have over war, religion—they’re just so petty because we’re all on this small rock in the vastness of space. So I think there’s a part of it that is this sense of being something larger than ourselves when we talk about other life forms outside of the solar system. Is that something that you come across when people talk to you about it as well?

The Future of Astrobiology - A Conversation with Dr. Graham Lau

I think in this realm of study where we are now, astrobiology and the overview effect are slightly different things. But personally, I argue that astrobiology, in its study, is a form of the overview effect for us because it makes us think about ourselves as a biosphere, as a planet where life has evolved and interacted with the planet over time. If there are other biospheres out there, it tells us a lot about what we are and who we are.

To be fair, I will admit that the overview effect is not a scientifically rigorous, studied phenomenon. It’s really hard to have a control group, for instance, in a psychological study—people who wanted to go to space but didn’t have the chance, and similar factors. However, there are many of us who are interested in exploring the overview effect through meditation, virtual reality experiences, gaming, videos, and other mediums.

Frank White, the author who wrote “The Overview Effect” in 1987, is a friend of mine and a wonderful thinker. He has been pondering for a long time about how going to space and seeing ourselves from the outside can change us. However, humanity has been contemplating these thoughts for a long time.

Let me share an anecdote. One of my favorite short stories is “Star Maker” by Olaf Stapledon, published in 1937, long before Sputnik was launched and humans went to space. In this story, Stapledon imagines human consciousness leaving the body, traveling out into space. He actually perceived what that experience might be like for humans to see the Earth from the outside, and how this view could change human consciousness.

In 1937, when Stapledon wrote this, Europe was on the brink of war. People were aware that another great war was looming. Some of Stapledon’s colleagues questioned him about why he would write a story about seeing Earth from space and having these conscious experiences in the universe at a time of impending war. In the introduction to the story in a 1938 edition, Stapledon explains that this attempt to see our world from the outside might increase our empathy toward one another, making us feel like we are all crew members of spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller liked to say.

There’s a lot to be said for the unifying concepts of astrobiology and space exploration. They help us understand that we are part of something larger than our daily lives on this planet, that there’s much more in the universe for us to explore and comprehend. Maybe we still don’t know that much about our own place in the cosmos. We are truly just awakening to it now.

Future of Humanity: Optimism vs. Pessimism

Yeah, I’ve really noticed that too, just by the people I’m around, everyone seems to be thinking about this. Everyone wants to feel connected in some way. Yet, we’re confronted with forces that are not necessarily reductive, but very segregating, like religion or nationality. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that at one time, there were only a handful of us across the entire planet. My high school alone had 3000 people. Now, there are so many of us, and it’s easy to fall into these little tribal camps.

I do feel that certain topics evoke a sense of awe. The overview effect is one, and the idea of extraterrestrial biology is another. They both underscore that everyone on this planet is essentially on the same team. So when we consider all of this, I think the natural inclination is to wonder where people stand. Some are pessimistic, others optimistic. Some think we’ll become more tribal in the future, while others believe we’ll grow closer together.

As an astrobiologist, how do you feel about it? Are you more pessimistic or optimistic? Do you think we’re headed towards dystopia or utopia?

For science fiction, I find dystopian stories quite fun because they allow us to explore alternative futures or even different present moments that could have been but aren’t. With dystopian futures, you don’t have to speculate how far technology and culture will progress; instead, you set the story in a known period of human history and then introduce different surviving technologies and scenarios. It’s fun for storytelling, but it does tend to have a pessimistic tone.

Personally, I consider myself more of an optimist. I believe there’s a bright future ahead for our biosphere. However, I do have occasional doubts about the future of our species. I wonder how much more we can achieve personally. I do think about the current advancements in artificial intelligence and the potential for artificial general intelligence to emerge in the next few decades, or possibly sooner. AGI could not only match human-level intelligence in reasoning and thinking but also possess creativity and imagination. Looking further ahead, emotional capabilities might even be integrated into AI in some way. It raises the question whether we are in the process of creating the next evolutionary step in our biosphere—a technological species that could potentially surpass us.

It’s a thought-provoking topic because we could be inadvertently paving the way for our own demise. However, I don’t necessarily view this as a negative development. It could be a natural progression for any biosphere to transition from organic origins, through a long evolutionary journey, to technological advancements. Perhaps on other planets, different civilizations have risen and fallen, reaching a point where they transitioned from biological to post-biological existence. This begs the question: Is this the inevitable trajectory for all biospheres, to eventually move towards a post-biological future?

Colonizing Other Planets: Challenges and Possibilities

I hope not. Ensuring the survival of the human species is really important to me. I think it’s possible. I believe we’re improving as a species, even if it may not always feel that way. When we consider violence and the decrease in deaths due to trauma over our history, there’s clear progress.

So, yeah, I tend to have faith in humanity. But how do we ensure our survival? Many discuss climate change as a pressing issue. Others propose colonizing other planets or even the moon, taking our adapted biosphere with us. I’m sure this is a significant focus in astrobiology—how to transplant what humans need to survive to these new environments.

However, I’ve also heard pessimistic views on this idea, especially concerning cosmic radiation and other challenges. What are your thoughts on what this might look like?

Yeah, so just as in our current understanding of how life functions (we still don’t exactly know what life is), but in our current thinking of how life as we know it operates, there seems to be a biological imperative to reproduce, diversify, and spread out. Perhaps in a cosmological sense, there could also be a biological imperative for biospheres to reproduce and spread out. It might be a natural progression for biospheres to venture out and colonize other worlds within their own solar systems, sending out life’s spores. In our case, it would involve us traveling to these other worlds and taking life with us.

So, it seems natural for us to desire to settle and explore these other worlds, aiming to become multi-planetary. This could mark a significant evolutionary shift for our biosphere and civilization—to expand beyond being confined to just one biosphere and begin inhabiting other worlds. Like I mentioned, I was a huge Sci-Fi nerd as a kid. I’ve always wondered what the future might hold for humans if we start inhabiting different worlds, possibly even different star systems. What evolutionary paths might we take if we no longer see each other regularly, evolving and adapting to these different worlds? We might give rise to multiple forms of humanity, spawning various offshoots of the original human species from a distant past into numerous future beings.

Yeah, so I hope so. I hope that’s one of the many outcomes. I think that the diversity of life throughout the solar system is very low right now, and I would love for it to be more significant. I would love to have a cousin that’s Martian or a nephew that’s Venusian or something like that. I feel like the rate-limiting step is creating a habitable environment for humans to live on those locations.

Who do you think is closest to getting it right? Or what do you think is the model that is going to be closest to getting it right? Because for me, the lowest-hanging fruit is creating a self-contained orb or colony that goes to one of these places. Those individuals might not be able to go out and get the paper from the sidewalk the same way you and I do. They might have to put on a spacesuit to do things outside. Many people have talked about going underneath the surface of these large objects.

So, what does it look like? What do you think is the most likely way it’s going to look for the future of humans being on these other planetary objects?

Analog Habitats: Simulating Life on Mars

I think there’s no one answer. I think we have the technology right now to settle other worlds. We know we do. A lot of people have studied this. We have analog astronautics. I’ve been an analog astronaut at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. We have analog bases around the planet. NASA has run them, Roscosmos and ESA. But a lot of private organizations and nonprofit organizations have also run these analog bases for the Moon and Mars. We know we can make it work. We know humans can adapt their environments.

What do you mean by that when you’re saying analog?

Yeah, the analog habitats. There are several of them around the world now—in China, Israel, Oman, and here in the US, such as the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. These habitats are designed to resemble what it might be like to live on Mars. During a two-week or four-week crew rotation, you live inside these habitats and simulate life on Mars. Some participants conduct scientific experiments, while others explore philosophical, cultural, and artistic endeavors. You live with a crew of usually six or seven people, simulating what it might be like to send humans to the Moon or Mars. At Mars Desert Research Station, for example, you can go outside, but you have to go through an airlock process where you put on a spacesuit and simulate filtering the air before stepping out. You conduct EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activities) to explore the geology and biology of the environment around the habitat. There are many such habitats around the world now, like HI-SEAS in Hawaii, D-MARS in the Negev Desert, and others, where people explore what life might be like on the Moon or Mars together.

Technologically, there are many issues that we don’t face on Earth in these analog habitats that we will face on the Moon or Mars. These include huge temperature shifts, lack of atmosphere, and radiation issues, especially on Mars. One idea is to bury habitats to mitigate some of these challenges.

Exploring Lava Tubes on the Moon and Mars

Other ideas involve utilizing lava tubes, which are caves formed by flowing lava. As lava flows and solidifies on the surface, it leaves behind chasms that form long tubes known as lava tubes, which exist all over Earth. These caves are enjoyable to explore for those interested in speleology and caving. We know that similar lava tubes exist on the Moon and Mars; we’ve observed skylights and collapsed examples, indicating the presence of larger internal chambers within these tubes. Perhaps our initial habitats on Mars and the Moon, capable of supporting larger human populations, could be constructed inside these caves to provide protection against radiation and create a more robust living environment.

However, there are numerous technological challenges to address for humans to thrive in these environments. We need reliable sources of drinking water and food, recreational activities, and effective methods for performing work and maintaining physical fitness in the lower gravity conditions of Mars or the Moon. For instance, a trip to Mars involves approximately two years, including three to six months for the journey each way and possibly a year on the Martian surface. Such extended durations in environments hostile to human life—from the space environment during the journey to the conditions on Mars—pose significant challenges.

Fortunately, extensive research has shown that we currently possess the scientific and engineering knowledge required to undertake such missions. The primary limitations at present are funding and political support to translate these capabilities into reality and send humans to Mars right now.

Growing Food on the Moon and Mars

Honestly, I think that’s enlightening for me. I didn’t know we had reached that level of progress. I didn’t realize that we could literally go right now if we wanted to. Some of these engineering feats you mentioned, like ensuring there’s enough food, I didn’t realize we had already solved that problem. I thought it was still an issue. But you’re saying that technologically, we have the ability to produce enough food for a year on Mars right now.

So, if we had the resources and funding support to do what we want to do, we could accomplish almost anything. And it certainly still is a problem. We still have to figure out how to grow plants and ensure enough nutrition for our astronauts on the Moon and Mars. One of the hurdles to sending people to these places is providing enough food and water for the journey. That’s where the concept of in situ resource utilization comes in, where we aim to use local resources available on the Moon and Mars, such as regolith for building materials or growing crops, to sustain ourselves. But ultimately, it boils down to money. If our world were more united and every nation contributed around 10% of its general budget annually to space exploration, we could easily be exploring our entire solar system and beyond by now. The level of funding available is crucial because there are so many people interested in solving these challenges and participating in this broader human expansion.

Yeah, no, and I think that’s an important concept. But as a lay person like myself, I didn’t realize the engineering problems for growing plants on Mars are solved.

I wouldn’t say they’re fully solved yet. We have approaches that can work. There’s still a lot to learn. There are people doing astrobotany work, for instance, exploring how to grow plants in the lunar or Martian regolith soils. Those who have read or watched “The Martian” know about this.

I love “The Martian”. That’s why I was asking, because when I saw it, I was like, “Dude, there’s no way that these people can grow that stuff right now.”

Yes. So, as my friend Rafael Lorrero likes to point out—he’s an astrobotanist at Winston-Salem State University and studies these things—how do we grow plants in various forms of regolith? As he likes to point out, Mark Watney would have died from eating those potatoes because he didn’t clean the soil first. The regolith of Mars is enriched in perchlorates, which are toxic to humans. So he should not have eaten those potatoes; Watney should have washed the soil first to remove the perchlorate salts. But then, once we have it washed… Now a lot of folks are looking at how to mix Martian or lunar regolith with other materials to create a good growth substrate for plants. What kinds of plants will grow best? So I wouldn’t say these problems are solved. It’s not like we have all the answers, but we certainly have enough technology, engineering, and ideas to make it happen now and just start the process. A lot of what we have to learn, we’re going to learn along the way.

So, we’re going to start off with some processes of growing crops on the Moon and Mars. Some of it will work, and some of it won’t work, but we’ll use the things we know for sure work right away. Sending nutritional supplements and things like that with astronauts in the early days will be necessary, but once they figure out how to establish large, sustainable agriculture on the Moon and Mars, that’ll change the number of people we can send and how often we can send them.

Do you think agriculture, and first off, agriculture and just food in general, being a glutton like myself, I feel like it’s a personal interest of mine because, to be honest, that’s like the biggest concern for me. I don’t want to go to another place and find out they don’t have pizza. That’s not the lifestyle I’m looking for. But on the same token, what does that look like? What is our best shot at farming right now? Are we looking at hydroponics? Are we using soil? And of all the experiments going on right now, what does that mean for the astronauts? We have the moon mission coming up next year, hopefully. Fingers crossed. What will they be doing? Will it all be supplements they take with them for the moon mission? I know there’s some idea of trying to create plant life on the moon. What does that look like?

Psychological Benefits of Space Agriculture

So for these first human missions to the moon and Mars, we’re going to send all the food along with the astronauts just to ensure there’s enough, unless we can sustainably send a growing facility to Mars right now and have it start producing crops with robots, ensuring the food supply. Even then, we’ll still make sure we have enough food to support humans. The Artemis mission, sending humans to the moon with Artemis, will certainly have their nutritional needs covered with the necessary calories and nutrition being sent along. This costs a lot of money, which is why space exploration is so challenging. Growing food in situ would save us a lot of money and time. It also has significant psychological benefits for humans to grow plants. The act of cultivating plant material and then consuming it is almost a ritual process that has been practiced for generations, tens of thousands of years now. It gives us a way to engage with the environment of our habitat where humans are living.

I don’t know exactly what it will look like when they first start doing it. There are people exploring all kinds of methods, from using the regolith itself and mixing it with other materials to experimenting with hydroponics or using other types of created substrates. These methods could potentially be used for growing food. People are also investigating different types of crops we can grow. Additionally, many are exploring the idea of lab-grown meats. Can we produce lab-grown steak and fish? Several companies are already pursuing this, researching its viability.

Not in Florida. Yeah, they, like, outlawed it.

Yeah. Who knows what that will look like? There are people who won’t allow it to be called meat; it might be called something else in their state, which is rather silly. But honestly, it’s something worth exploring for the future, especially for space exploration, because meat is a great source of nutrients. It might be a way for us to provide meats for astronauts to eat without having to take cattle and deal with the huge issues that come with raising them on Mars or the moon.

Most likely, the astronauts who end up being the first ones going to the moon and Mars will have flavorful options sent along with them. Psychologically, there’s a lot of benefit to eating a variety of foods, and the sheer enjoyment of different flavors enhances how we interact with food. We’ll probably try to accommodate that. However, humans going out to explore these new worlds are explorers. Throughout history, when humans embarked on great exploration journeys to discover new lands and things, they were often limited in the food they could take with them or the variety they could eat. A great example is polar explorers in the Arctic and Antarctic, who famously carried a lot of pemmican. Pemmican comes from a Native American recipe; it’s essentially dried meat ground into powder and mixed with animal fat. To prevent scurvy you can add berries and other ingredients for flavor, resulting in a very nutritious meat bar that sustains during Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and long sled trips in those harsh environments.

I’ve tried pemmican myself, and I actually find it quite delicious. I even made my own. But not everyone agrees. For some people, eating pemmican every day for a few months might make them irritable. But that’s part of the risk of exploration.

I didn’t even know about that. Okay, so let’s take intelligent life out of the equation. Let’s take human life out of the equation. Where do you think, if you were a betting person, which planet in the solar system would you say is the most likely to contain very simple life, like single-celled organisms, that kind of stuff? Is it Titan? Is it Venus? Is it Mars? Where do you think the discovery of life within our solar system that is not human, that is not intelligent life, might come from?

Potential for Life Beyond Earth

I’ll give you two answers. First off, if there ever could have been life beyond Earth in our own solar system, I think the most likely candidate world is Venus. Not necessarily now, but long ago, around 4 billion years ago, very early on. Venus is very much Earth’s twin in terms of size. Unlike Earth, Venus didn’t experience a large moon-forming event that gave it a substantial moon like ours. Therefore, its core is also much smaller, making it a fundamentally different world. Venus has undergone a drastic greenhouse effect that caused its entire surface to apparently melt into lava and then resolidify. Consequently, Venus has followed a much different evolutionary path than Earth. I do speculate that early in our solar system’s history, it would be fascinating if there were intelligent aliens observing us who knew about the early Venutian biosphere that existed and was wiped out long ago. Learning about this would be captivating for us. Considering panspermia, the idea of life spreading between planets via rocks, perhaps life originated on Venus and then came to Earth. For all we know, we might all be Venutian. We still don’t know where or how life originated—it might not have begun here on Earth but arrived from elsewhere. That’s a compelling idea.

In the modern day, while I’m enthusiastic about exploring Mars for possible signs of past or present life, I also consider one of the ocean worlds as a better candidate. If life could originate and evolve within the icy oceans of these worlds (which we’re uncertain about), it would be highly intriguing to explore them for potential signs of life. Europa, with its vast subsurface ocean under an icy crust, is particularly compelling. However, technologically, accessing this ocean is challenging. Therefore, I currently find Enceladus to be one of the more exciting targets. Enceladus is a small moon of Saturn with cracks in its southern hemisphere called tiger stripes. These cracks emit crystallized water, likely originating from an internal ocean beneath its icy surface. I strongly support a return mission to Enceladus to closely explore these plumes and search for potential signs of life that could exist in its ocean and be ejected into space. Of course, this is all under the assumption that life beyond Earth ever did exist in our solar system.

Medical Applications of Space Exploration

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I didn’t even know that Enceladus had those geysers. I’ll have to take a closer look at that. We’re getting close to the end of our time, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you a bit about my own field of interest, which is medicine. You have this idea of astrobiology, and there are a few people out there who say that tissue engineering could be better in space, that there are medical applications of space. Honestly, I don’t really see it. I feel like if we’re going to send something up to make tissue and then bring it back down, it just seems like an overly complicated process to me. But what are some low-hanging fruit that maybe I’m missing because you’re looking at it from a different perspective?

There’s a lot to explore with bioastronautics and space biology, which share similarities in some forms. Many in astrobiology are focusing on space medicine and bioastronautics. In this realm, we’re exploring how to sustain the human body in space. There are significant questions like pathogenicity, for instance. We can investigate how certain organisms’ pathogenicity evolves, especially by sending them into space to observe gene regulation and other factors in different environments like space. Some things have shown to become more harmful to the human body in space, providing us with insights into safely sustaining humans and other life forms in space in the future.

Moreover, there’s a vast realm of spin-off technologies and medical applications stemming from space research. NASA, for example, has produced the NASA Spinoff document annually for several decades, exploring technology derived from space exploration across various fields including electronics, materials science, geology, and earth observation. Medical research is also a significant area, advancing diagnostics and developing instrumentation to understand human body issues in extreme environments and exploring how tissues and organs might behave in space.

The big question remains whether there are medical insights unique to space that we can’t gain on Earth. Conducting research in space with tissues and other biological materials is costly and resource-intensive, but it offers unique perspectives for medical science. Perhaps there’s reason to be skeptical about some trade-offs, as much of our current medical understanding can be achieved on Earth. However, space exploration continues to demonstrate that there are valuable lessons to be learned from the space environment that can benefit medicine here on Earth in the long run.

The Future of Astrobiology - A Conversation with Dr. Graham Lau

Yeah, I think the idea of performance enhancement for safe space flight is intriguing. The concept of exploring how the human body, or any form of life, tolerates cosmic radiation and similar challenges raises interesting questions. Personally, I’m always looking for potential medical applications in different technologies, but I haven’t yet seen a clear one in this area. However, I’ll definitely check out the NASA Spinoff recommendation you mentioned. It sounds like a valuable resource worth exploring.

There’s NASA’s Space Bioscience Division and NASA Ames, where a lot of researchers are focused on issues like muscle and bone degeneration in space. They conduct numerous studies using mouse models, rat models, various cell lines, and even human astronauts to understand the processes behind muscle and bone breakdown in microgravity and apparent weightlessness. The technologies and insights they develop could potentially benefit people on Earth, especially the elderly dealing with conditions like osteoporosis and other age-related issues affecting bone and muscle health. So, learning how to support human life in space might also lead to advancements that promote healthier and longer lives here on Earth.

Inspiration from Science Fiction

Yeah, I think that definitely holds the highest promise from a medical perspective. Listen, it was so nice talking with you. I want to ask you the three questions that I ask all of my guests, especially as a fellow science fiction aficionado, I guess you could say. Firstly, where do you gain inspiration from? For many people, it’s their kids or the team around them, which is great, and I’m sure you probably feel the same way. But specifically, I want to see a utopia, not a dystopia, and that’s why I do this. I want to ensure people are moving in that direction, and a lot of that comes from science fiction. I love utopian science fiction because it shows us what we’re capable of as a species. But what about yourself? How does science fiction, specifically, inspire you in your work and your life?

Yeah, great question. And yeah, it’s easy to say my son and my family inspire me, and my team is wonderful. I am really honored to be around so many incredible people who think big things about the universe, and they all inspire me in many ways. When it comes to science fiction stories, I just love stories in general. I’ll say that outright, that we are storytellers. It’s been part of our human history, and in many ways, it’s part of what’s helped us evolve our civilization. It helps us to consider empathy and other ways of living and being. And so science fiction is a big part of that. There are lots of stories for me. I reread Dune every single year. I’ve read the whole series of Dune a couple of times now. I love the early works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, but also more modern writers like NK Jemisin and others who have written some incredible things. Andy Weir’s writing is great too. So much great stuff coming out of science fiction.

I mentioned earlier Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Star Maker.’ I highly recommend that to anyone intrigued by ideas of astrobiology, life, intelligence, and consciousness. We didn’t really get into it, but I’m also a meditation instructor and very interested in consciousness studies, exploring what it means for us to be aware of ourselves as a species and as a biosphere right now. ‘Star Maker’ by Olaf Stapledon is one book that I reread every year. It’s a beautiful exploration of consciousness on a cosmic scale, spanning different cosmic scales and asking big philosophical questions. It’s dated now, having been published in 1937, but it’s still very much worth having in your library if you’re someone who enjoys exploring these topics of consciousness and understanding ourselves in the universe.”

Future of Astrobiology and AI

I’ll have to check it out. Man, thank you so much for telling me about that. Okay, so next question. The whole field of astrobiology, where do you see that in ten years? Do you think we’re going to be seeing signs of life? Or just in general, do you think the investment in space is going to be totally different after we have another moon mission? Where do you see ourselves in the field of astrobiology in ten years?

We might end up finding a technosignature tomorrow and discovering signs of alien life, or maybe we’re 50 years away from it, I don’t know. But I will say a lot is happening right now, not just in astrobiology, but for everyone because of machine learning and artificial intelligence. In astrobiology and space science, machine learning itself, applying these large machine learning programs to vast datasets, is changing how we collect and understand data. There’s a big future in creating missions with autonomous instruments that can explore, collect vast amounts of data, analyze it, and then provide us with the most crucial insights. That’s really changing the landscape of space exploration. Currently, the timeline for most spacecraft projects is typically ten to 20 years, from mission proposal and development to design, launch, and reaching its destination. There’s a lot going on there.

Additionally, artificial intelligence is prompting many to ponder topics like communicating with other non-human beings here on Earth. Right now, we’re considering using AI to communicate with whales, dolphins perhaps in the future, and even our primate relatives by understanding their sounds, gestures, and potentially creating a basic form of language understanding between us. AI might also assist in deciphering potential signs of life from space.

The next ten years, technology is poised to see radical advancements for all humanity. We may be among the last humans able to gaze at the night sky on a dark night and not immediately spot a satellite. With projects like Starlink and other satellite constellations, we’re reshaping the night sky for humanity and our biosphere. In about ten years, we might see crisscrossing satellite lights every time we look up. A lot is changing with technology, artificial intelligence, and more. All of this, I believe, is leading us back to the drawing board to wonder what alien biospheres might be like and what alien civilizations may have experienced. Have they too faced challenges like climate change and rampant technological development? Have these served as bottlenecks, possibly leading them toward dystopian outcomes? If so, can we learn from their experiences and steer ourselves toward a more utopian vision for the future?

Yeah, that’s cool. That leads me to my third question: which field of science, apart from your own, are you fascinated by due to the breakthroughs happening in such an intriguing way? For instance, in my case, although I’m in medicine, consumer robotics captivates me. I look forward to having robots that can water my plants, do my laundry, and handle various household tasks. How about you? Besides natural biology, and let’s exclude artificial intelligence since you’ve already touched on that, what area of science in the news excites you the most? What breakthroughs are you eagerly anticipating?

Medicine, health, and longevity. There’s a lot happening right now in longevity studies, aiming to better understand human aging processes. It’s strange how many of us fear death, yet it’s a shared inevitability. We’re all born into this world, but we’ll all eventually pass away. I feel like our discussions around end-of-life care and healthy aging are still quite immature. Across society, we still grapple with diseases like dementia and various ailments that afflict us in old age, with some spending their final years in a state of slow degeneration.

There’s fascinating research underway on how to promote healthy aging and extend human lifespans. Researchers are exploring the roles of hormones, cellular senescence, and other factors in our ability to regenerate and maintain health into later years. Given the trajectory of medical advancements, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first person to live beyond 200 years old is already alive today.

Of course, there’s much debate around this topic. Some argue against significantly extending human lifespans due to concerns about overpopulation and other challenges facing humanity.


Conclusion and Final Thoughts

I want to live for hundreds of years. I want to live, like, the life of a tree, to actually experience geological time. I think it would change how we perceive ourselves. There’s a lot happening in this field right now. Like any other area of science or study, it has its ups and downs, but it’s definitely expanding. We’re learning much more about human longevity and how to age well.

Yeah, I totally agree. I’m also interested in that. I’d like to live to be 200 and hopefully see humans conquering a lot of these planets, as well as just space in general. Thanks so much for speaking with us, Graham. It was really nice having you on the podcast and for giving us your perspective. As always, for everyone listening, if you could like and subscribe, I would really appreciate it. And for those of you who are subscribing and tuning in regularly, I’ll see you in the future. Thanks, everybody. Have a great day!

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About Graham Lau

Dr. Graham Lau, an astrobiologist and science communicator, holds expertise in biology, chemistry, astrophysics, and geology. His research spans from the Canadian High Arctic to global particle accelerators, focusing on life’s impact on environments and the search for extraterrestrial life. As host of NASA’s “Ask an Astrobiologist,” he educates a wide audience on astrobiology.

Currently, Dr. Lau directs communications and marketing at Blue Marble Space, while serving as a Research Scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. He also manages logistics for the University Rover Challenge, nurturing future robotic engineers. Beyond astrobiology, Dr. Lau inspires through lectures, podcasts, and discussions on humanity’s place in the universe, meditation, and public speaking coaching. His broad expertise reflects his dedication to education and cosmic exploration.


By: The Futurist Society