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What the space age taught us: Earth is the best of all possible worlds




"Exploring Mars", a 1954 work of art by Chesley Bonestell. (Chesley Bonestell / Bonestell LLC)

Mars should be next. Surely the moon was just a sharp stone in the conquest of space. For many people who came to age in the Apollo era, it seemed reasonable to assume that the entire solar system would be our stomping ground. Eventually we wanted to visit stars. "Star Trek", which debuted in 1966, appeared to be a plausible vision of man's destiny.

Half a century after Apollo 11, we have been forced again and again to calibrate our expectations.

The exploration of deep space by meat-and-blood people no longer inevitably appears. It does not seem to be particularly affordable under probable government budgets in the post-space race era, and private dreams can never fully penalize as they say. Space travel remains dangerous; The catastrophic loss of two spacecraft showed it.

There has also been a more subtle revelation from a half-century experience of spaceflight. Entering space has given us a greater understanding of our connection to Earth.

The human body goes haywire as it throws into space and away from the familiar environment Earth's surface. We learned this by doing so. And our innate terrestrial nature is both biological and psychological: Astronauts in orbit spend much of their free time out the window at home.

Perhaps the most important thing we learned from the Roman age is that we are Earthlings.

Bodies in revolt


NASA astronaut Scott Kelly in a Russian Sokol rome set before launch to the International Space Station on March 27, 2015 in Kazakhstan. (Andrey Shelepin / NASA / GCTC)

When astronaut Scott Kelly circulated in 2015 for an almost year-long mission, his immune system initially went bonkers. It was as if under attack by a virus. On the cellular network, his body screamed: Where is gravity?

The fluids in his body liquidated in the wrong places, a commercial danger for astronauts. The effects include insomnia and blurred vision. And even though his genetic code did not change, his gene expression – the creation of proteins that are workhorses in the body – was subject to marked changes, with some genes extinguished and other teeth.

The astronauts adapt to gravity and do their job well. But then they face another shot when they return to Earth. Kelly suffered from painful rashes, swollen bones, nausea and flabby symptoms. His gene expression is mainly returned to his normal state, but not entirely. Kelly said he didn't feel right for about eight months.

While Scott walked around the earth, his twin brother, Markus, went about the business on the surface and paused to let scientists try his blood, urine, etc. for comparison with his siblings in the room. NASA said its Twins Study revealed no show stoppers – nothing that would prevent any human mission to Mars, the agency's long-term goal.

But the study reminded that space travel is brutal on human bodies adapted to life on this particular planet. Our bones lose density. Muscles can atrophy. Astronauts must exercise two hours a day to avoid wasting. We can live in space, but the environment does not really agree with us.

"We're pretty exquisitely designed for this planet, and we're pretty fragile physiologically when you get out of this planet," studying co-author Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told The Washington Post.


NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives a flu shot to an ongoing study of the human immune system. (Scott Kelly / NASA)

In the Hollywood version of spaceflight, nobody ever worries about the composition of the air in the spacecraft. But, as Scott Kelly can attest, the air in the International Space Station can be a little away. Kelly says that high levels of carbon dioxide can cause malaise, especially in areas with poor air circulation.

Kelly brothers attended a recent NASA sponsored telephony conference to discuss the Twins Study, where one of the researchers, Stuart Lee, said the air on the ISS "is very close to what we have on earth." He continued the CO2 levels at 0.3 percent of the air, compared with about 0.03 percent on the Earth's surface.

Scott Kelly quickly chimed in: "So it's 10 times higher, Stuart. Right?"

"So, yes, it's 10 times higher," acknowledged Lee.

Then there is radiation. The Earth's magnetic field protects the ISS against much of the radiation in the room. But an astronaut traveling to Mars would not have this protection and would be particularly vulnerable to "cosmic rays" which are elemental particles of galactic origin that travel almost at the speed of light and potentially cause cancer, genetic damage and acute radiation disease.

Human psychology is another area of ​​interest to NASA. Scott Kelly could see a window and see the earth. He could call home. He could be in contact, in real time. But a one-way trip to Mars using current technology would take at least six months – and probably longer. A radio signal between the spacecraft and Earth would take minutes to travel over the interplanetary distances, making a normal conversation impossible. Boredom is a danger. There are also interpersonal conflicts among crew members.

"It's a security when people go to Mars, some of these people will suffer great psychiatric symptoms, because that's just the nature of the way people are," said Twins Study co-author Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University .

A human being is a complex organism – a collaboration involving trillions of microbes, most of which live in our intestines. The microbes come from and have intimate connections to Earth. Mars not only has the kind of air, water, gravity and radiation we are used to, it also almost certainly does not have the right kind of bacteria.

None of this prevents a human mission to Mars or elsewhere in space. Never lose the ingenuity of future generations. But the biggest technological advances since Apollo has taken place within 0 and 1 are – the digital revolution. Robots do well in space. Any mission to the moon or Mars must justify a human presence.

NASA plans to put another rover on Mars soon, one designed to obtain soil samples that can once be sent back to the ground robotically. It's a scientific echo of what the Apollo astronauts did. The difference this time: No people in the loop.

Alexa, bring us a Mars rock.

Mars: Fallback plan?


NASA's rover Opportunity looks back over its own tracks on August 4, 2010. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The most passionate space research advocates say we have no alternative. They see it as an existential imperative, because bad things can happen with good planets (ask the dinosaurs who did not have a backup plan 66 million years ago when a giant stone hit Earth). And people could trigger their own death: Someone could construct a particularly bad germ. We are already desperate to solve the climate crisis caused by human activity, and nuclear war remains a terrible opportunity.

The late Stephen Hawking was among the smart people who say we need a return option. "Although the chance of a planet-earth disaster in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and it becomes close to safe for the next 1,000 or 10,000 years," Hawking said in a news article from November 2016. "At that time we should have spread into space and to other stars, so a catastrophe on earth would not mean the end of humanity. "

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin echoes the meaning of a recent listed in the Post, which suggests "the great migration of mankind to Mars." He wrote that we have no alternative: "[nature] – and possibly our ultimate survival – requires the continued outer reach of mankind in the universe … We are exploring, or we are expiring."

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has said that his company's central purpose is to create a human civilization on Mars, so we can be a two-planet art. He does not speak of a simple research post in Antarctica: He wants to build cities on Mars, a completely self-sustaining civilization that would preserve humanity if something were violent with the earth.

Musk and his brilliant engineers have achieved great success with SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla, and so people who are once skeptical of Musk's bold talk tend to uncover their bets these days. Yes, he overpromises, but he's persistent.

Still, SpaceX and Musk can't just wave away the technological and budgetary challenges that have prevented NASA and all other space agencies around the world from attempting a Mars mission. (Or maybe he can: When Musk was asked a few years ago about the radiation danger in the interplanetary space, he said he was not worried about it. The problem solved!)

President Trump in 2017 asked NASA's acting administrator if Agency could send people to Mars by 2020. Answer: Not a chance.

Mars is not an object parked in space beyond the moon. In his book "The Moon", author Oliver Morton writes of the moon, "[It] is not just the closest outpost for other places; it is also the farthest reach of here. It is in tribulation to Earth and its face domed by gravity hands so strong that it can't turn our eyes away from ours. "However, Mars is in a hurry to the sun. Mars can be as much as 249 million miles from Earth. Almost every imaginable mission to Mars requires something like a 500-day stay on the Red Planet before the planets of the planets allow a journey home.


People dreamed about man's space flight long before they actually got it. In the 1950s, Collier's magazine highlighted the "Space Conquest" goal, and readers were imprisoned by missions to the moon, Mars, and exotic worlds across the solar system. The painter and illustrator Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) gave some of the most popular images of the upcoming Rum age. His version of the moon was a robust place with giant peaks dwarfing the spaceships and the little characters of wandering astronauts. He later said he was disappointed with the Apollo era revelation that the moon has gently rounded hills. Above is "A Domed Colony on Mars", a 1976 artwork by Bonestell. (Chesley Bonestell / Bonestell LLC)

Although Musk sees Mars as a fixer upper plane, it would require a whole lot of fixin & # 39;. That's the message from the second tycoon with a space business – Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post. Bezos favors the gradual migration of heavy industry into space, allowing Earth to become a protected sanctuary. He doesn't see Mars as a Plan B, says in 2016: "Think about it: No whiskey, no bacon, no swimming pools, no oceans, no walks, no city centers. Finally, Mars may be amazing. in the future. This planet is incredible. "

Scott Kelly has no delusions about Mars as a potential mulligan:" It will always be easier to take care of this planet than to make Mars another Earth. It is not our lifeboat . "The great physicist Freeman Dyson once suspected that this is the most interesting of all possible universes and that we exist to do so. And maybe he's right.

But science has told us again and again – and it is a deeply humiliating message – that the universe is not about us.

It is certain that in the foreseeable future it is not likely to do-over in space. The soil is not single use. Here we do our stand.

That's what we learned to enter the room.


Night Earth observations taken by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. (Scott Kelly / NASA)

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