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What a mushroom reveals about the space program


I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about a fungus called Pilobolus. He lived on manure, mostly cows and horses, munching happily, enriching the soil as he went along, until he began to run out of manure to eat. Then something magical happens: the fungus stops eating and reorganizes into a giant stem with a ball of cells – a sporangium – on top.

This device can detect sunlight. Osmosis inflates the rod until, when the pressure increases enough, it essentially sneezes. The sporangium is thrown with a force equivalent to 20,000 times the force of gravity, towards a nearby patch of grass, where another horse or cow is likely to graze.

Our astronaut mushroom attaches itself to a grass stalk. Once eaten, the sporangium passes through the animal’s digestive system and is excreted in a rich pile of feces, after which the cycle of consumption and escape begins again.

It’s scary for me. How do individual fungal cells know when to let go of their anarchy and engage in determined action together? Do the mushrooms collectively know something that neither of them knows on their own – when and how to leave for new territory, away from the used droppings?

I can’t help but think of the humble Pilobolus’ behavior as a metaphor for the space program: a species, responding to impulses it doesn’t fully understand, yearning to leave the poop pile. What don’t we know about ourselves?

This is not to diminish the accomplishments and passions of today’s space bumps. Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos – the Pilobolus brothers – put their money where their sci-fi dreams lie, following three generations of astronauts and cosmonauts.

Last week, four humans without any astronaut credentials – including their leader, tech billionaire Jared Isaacman – circled the Earth for three days on Inspiration4, a mission in one of the SpaceX Dragon pods that carry humans. and materials to the International Space Station. Mr Isaacman will not disclose how much he paid for the flight, only that he hopes to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where one of his passengers, Hayley Arceneaux, has already been treated for a cancer and is now an assistant physician.

Since 2001, when Dennis Tito, an engineer turned investment guru, paid $ 20 million to spend eight days on the International Space Station, a handful of wealthy, tech-savvy people have gone for an out-of-pocket. experience of this world, some of them more than once. This summer, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each drove their own spaceships to the edge of space, a few dozen kilometers away.

He piles up there around the ultimate velvet rope.

Two years ago, NASA announced that anyone could visit the space station for $ 35,000 per day, not including the cost of the round trip. Tom Cruise would have liked to shoot a film there. Mr Musk has said he wants to die on Mars, but not yet. And Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, has now committed to performing space research on a series of Virgin Galactic flights, each costing $ 250,000, paid for by the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he works.

What does he plan to do with the four minutes of weightlessness that he will benefit from with each stroke? A lot, said Dr Stern, who is certainly not a billionaire, in a recent phone interview.

Among other things, Dr. Stern will wear a biomedical harness on his first flight that will record his body’s response to spaceflight and weightlessness, while taking photos of star fields to assess the quality of the ship’s windows. spatial. Over the next decade, he said, hundreds of space tourists will wear the harness, giving scientists and doctors a wealth of data on how ordinary people – as opposed to fit and finely trained astronauts. – react and adapt, or not, to space.

Other items on the agenda could include looking for asteroids very close to the sun, Dr Stern said.

The price of a Virgin Galactic seat has since risen to $ 450,000, but it’s still a good deal, said Dr. Stern. Suborbital spacecraft like Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship 2 or Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin can fly more often and cheaper than the traditional rockets that NASA used to lift sensitive instruments above the atmosphere, but which cost $ 4 million or more per flight.

“I think it’s going to bloom,” Dr Stern said of the suborbital activity.

We’ve heard it all before. Four decades ago, the space shuttle would make space travel routine and inexpensive, almost as uneventful as a transatlantic plane flight. Then 14 astronauts died.

Now a new generation of rockets, engineers, scientists and explorers are ready to attack the skies. It should come as no surprise that the rich are in the foreground. Space could be the new playground for the rich, as Maui and Aspen have become. Of course, whoever pays the piper invariably chooses the melody. Do we want the science agenda – for humanity – to be set by a club of rich white men? (Yes, until now they were all white males.)

All of their money and enthusiasm fueled innovation and enthusiasm, as well as jobs for scientists and engineers. And when things go wrong, as they did in early September, when privately-owned Firefly’s new Alpha rocket exploded on its first launch, it will be shareholders and venture capitalists, not taxpayers. , who will have to foot the bill.

Historically, the space program has served as a lead product, drawing people into science who end up creating new semiconductor chips or inventing new ways to image the brain. These are things that both political parties say they want.

It’s fitting that much of the money supporting this renaissance was made in the tech industry, by people who benefited from a tidal wave of government-sponsored research during the 1950s. and 1960, particularly in the fields of defense and aerospace.

There is also the question of what they will find out there. We might encounter a life more alien than even science fiction writers imagined, or desolate territory beyond belief, or simply the unsettling beauty of a ruthless nature. Or maybe a biochemical clue to our own beginnings.

Who knows if Elon Musk will end up dying on Mars. But someday someone will likely make history as the first person to perish on the Red Planet. In Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Transit of Earth”, an astronaut is stranded on Mars and wanders the desert to die, while listening to classical music, so his microbes can feed anything that can use them. in the new world. Houston, Pilobolus will have landed.


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