Let’s build a naked mole rat colony in space

For science, obviously.


Like everyone else on the internet, I spend a lot of time looking at animals. And while I’m fine with baby hippos and meerkats, my favorite animal of the moment isn’t exactly photogenic. In fact, it’s been described as “a wrinkled finger with teeth,” which I can neither dispute nor improve upon. Here it is, the naked mole rat:

Look at that iddle face

I learned about the existence of NMRs from Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (they appear at 0:45 in the trailer here). And the more I learn, the more I want to shoot them into space. They have five qualities that make them perfect astronauts.

First, they are capable of survival at incredibly low oxygen levels. The longest time in space is 438 days, a record held by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov. Naked mole rats could beat that handily: they’re capable of going more than half an hour without oxygen, without any damage to their brains.

Second, they never get cancer. Because despite what Gravity would tell us, it’s not flying debris, but cancer that’s the problem in space colonization. Any long-term astronauts or colonists would have to deal with radiation, the kind we’re protected from by our atmosphere. If we want to send humans to Mars, or mine asteroids, or just build a moon base, we’re going to be exposing people to a lot of space radiation, and that can scramble DNA. Scrambled DNA has a number of nasty side-effects, and an obvious one is cancer. But if you’re a naked mole rat, not only are you hideously ugly, but you have sugars between your cells that prevent cancerous cells from clumping into tumors.

Third, they don’t feel pain. Space is a harsh environment, and in the absence of gravity, there are bound to be some collisions. Not feeling it when you slam against a bulkhead? Sounds ok by me.

Fourth, they live extraordinarily long lives: three decades. Given how far away the Earth-sized planet in next solar system over is (Alpha Centauri Bb, 4.3 light years away), we’re going to need to figure out how to make mammals either survive in stasis or live extra-long to get there. Which brings us to the next defining feature of NMRs, which is that…

Fifth, they live in an insect-like hive. They are eusocial, like bees. They live in a colony and only a few ever experience the joys of parenthood: The queen, and a few males. The queen gives birth to litters of 10 to 27 pups (queens work hard). Colonies tend to last a few generations, and most of the mole rats are either workers or soldiers. If you were to define a successful animal social model for multi-generational space travel, it’s naked mole rats. As long as you could teach them to breed in zero-G.

Of course, it’s humans that want to go to space, not NMRs. That’s my point: Humans just aren’t designed for space. A truly successful spacefaring civilization is going to need to operate in a way that’s a little more like NMRs. Typical human behavior—our need for oxygen, our desire for physical space, our lack of queens who litter dozens of pups, our tendency to get cancer and feel pain—is absolutely standing in the way of sending us billions of miles into space to colonize the galaxy. Let’s send the animals that are best adapted to environment. Let’s send the naked mole rats.