What Language on Mars?

02/08/2010

Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

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Artificial life

21/05/2010

Predictions revisited

Forecasts and fears about artificial life

Today’s news of Craig Venter’s success in fashioning a new species of bacterium, with completely man-made DNA, propels me to the bookshelf to recall how this breathtaking event was anticipated with some trepidation.

“Fried-egg” colonies of (a) the synthetic bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and (b) the natural Mycoplasma capricolum bacterium that provided the cytoplasm but had its DNA replaced. The blue colour in (a) is created by a protein coded in the new DNA that reacts with a chemical in the agar base. Without that gene the colonies of the unmodified recipient bacterium remain white (b). From Gibson et al. Science, see references.

In brief, as reported online in Science magazine, Venter’s team designed, synthesized and assembled a DNA chromosome. They transplanted it into a bacterium to create novel cells controlled only by the synthetic DNA, and capable of continuous self-replication.

Anticipations of manipulated life

My personal favourite among the projections of genetic engineering has for long been that of the physicist Freeman J. Dyson, with his idea of breeding gigantic trees capable of living on comets, to provide human habitation even in the outer Solar System.

But if you google “genetic engineering” you’ll get 5.4 million offerings, or 2.2 million for “bioethics”. Old books on my shelf have many pages on the future manipulation of life and its possible risks. To be reasonably brief, I’ve picked a possibly useful overview of issues anticipated a quarter of a century ago. It’s from The Green Machines, which was written as if looking back from 2030 and published in 1986.

In Aztec times in Mexico, people made biscuits out of mats of cyanobacteria called Spirulina, which they harvested from alkaline lakes. By the 1970s Spirulina was known to be exceptionally rich in protein, and harvesting resumed in Mexico. Italian microbiologists discov­ered that they could prolong the growing season for Spirulina by cultivating it in polyethylene tubes, and they reported pro­duction rates of 50 tons per hectare per year-roughly ten times the yields of ordinary crops. Doing without sunshine, Imperial Chemical Industries grew bacteria (Methylophilus methylotrophus) on methanol and marketed them as Pruteen.

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