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What a Fungus Reveals About the Space Program

todaySeptember 21, 2021 1

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I spend a lot of time lately thinking about a fungus called Pilobolus. It lives on dung, mostly from cows and horses, happily munching away, enriching the soil as it goes, until it starts to run out of dung to eat. Then something magical happens: The fungus stops eating and rearranges itself into a giant stalk with a ball of cells — a sporangium — on top.

This apparatus can detect sunlight. Osmosis swells the stalk until, when the pressure rises high enough, it essentially sneezes. The sporangium is launched with a force equivalent to 20,000 times the force of gravity, toward a nearby patch of grass, where another horse or cow is likely to graze.

Our fungus astronaut attaches itself to a stalk of grass. Once eaten, the sporangium passes through the animal’s digestive system and is excreted back out in a rich pile of dung, whereupon the cycle of consumption and escape starts anew.

This is spooky to me. How do the individual fungal cells know when to abandon their anarchy and engage together in purposeful action? Do the fungi know something collectively that none of them know by themselves — when and how to strike out for new territory, away from the worn-out dung?

I can’t help thinking of the behavior of the lowly Pilobolus as a metaphor for the space program: a species, responding to urges it doesn’t fully understand, aspiring to leave the dung pile. What don’t we know about ourselves?

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

Last week, four humans with no astronaut credentials at all — including their leader, the tech billionaire Jared Isaacman — circled Earth for three days on Inspiration4, a mission in one of the SpaceX Dragon capsules that ferry humans and materials to the International Space Station. Mr. Isaacman won’t divulge how much he paid for the flight, only that he hopes to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where one of his passengers, Hayley Arceneaux, was once treated for cancer and is now a physician assistant.

Ever since 2001, when Dennis Tito, an engineer-turned-investment-guru, paid a reported $20 million to spend eight days on the International Space Station, a handful of wealthy and tech-oriented people have anteed up for an out-of-this-world experience, some of them more than once. This summer, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each rode their own spaceships to the edge of space, a few dozen miles up.

It’s getting crowded up there around the ultimate velvet rope.

Two years ago NASA announced that anyone could visit the space station for $35,000 a day, not counting the cost of getting up there and back again. Tom Cruise is said to have wanted to shoot a movie there. Mr. Musk famously said that he wanted to die on Mars, but not yet. And Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, has now signed up to do space research on a series of Virgin Galactic flights, each costing $250,000, paid for by the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he works.

What does he plan to do with the four minutes of weightlessness he will enjoy on each shot? Quite a lot, Dr. Stern, who is definitely not a billionaire, said in a recent telephone interview.

Among other things, Dr. Stern will be wearing a biomedical harness on his first flight that will record his body’s response to spaceflight and zero gravity, while taking pictures of star fields to gauge the quality of the spaceship’s windows. Over the next decade, he said, hundreds of space tourists will wear the harness, giving scientists and doctors a trove of data about how ordinary people — as opposed to the fit and finely trained astronauts — respond and adapt, or don’t, to space.

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

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

“I think it is going to blossom,” Dr. Stern said of the suborbital business.

We’ve heard all this before. Four decades ago the space shuttle was going to make space travel routine and cheap, almost as uneventful as a trans-Atlantic plane flight. Then 14 astronauts died.

Now a new generation of rockets, engineers, scientists and explorers are ready to assault the sky. We should hardly be surprised that wealthy people are at the forefront. Space might be the new playground for the rich, like Maui and Aspen have become. Of course, he who pays the piper invariably picks the tune. Do we want the agenda for science — for humanity — to be set by a club of rich, white men? (Yes, so far they have all been white men.)

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

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

It is fitting that much of the money backing this renaissance was made in the tech sector, by people who benefited from a tidal wave of government-sponsored research during the 1950s and ’60s, especially in defense and aerospace.

There’s also the matter of what they’ll find out there. We might encounter life that is more alien than even science-fiction writers have imagined, or territory desolate beyond belief, or merely the unsettling beauty of pitiless nature. Or perhaps a biochemical clue to our own beginnings.

Who knows if Elon Musk will eventually die on Mars. But someday, someone will probably enter history as the first person to perish on the Red Planet. In Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Transit of Earth,” an astronaut is marooned on Mars and wanders into the desert to die, while listening to classical music, so that his microbes might give sustenance to whatever can use them in the new world. Houston, Pilobolus will have landed.

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todaySeptember 21, 2021 1