I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about a fungus called pyrobolas lately. It lives primarily in feces from cows and horses and enriches the soil and gladly munches as it progresses until it begins to run out of feces to eat. Then something strange happens. The fungus stops eating and repositions it on a giant stem with the cell bulbs (sporangia) facing up.
This device can detect sunlight. Osmotic pressure, when the pressure is high enough, causes the stem to swell until it essentially sneezes. The sporangium is fired at a force equivalent to 20,000 times gravity toward nearby grasslands where other horses and cows may graze.
Our fungal astronauts attach to grass stalks. When eaten, sporangia pass through the animal’s digestive system and are excreted in abundant fecal piles, beginning a new cycle of consumption and escape.
This is creepy to me. How do individual fungal cells know when to abandon their disorder and engage in deliberate behavior together? Do fungi collectively know that none of them know for themselves? When and how do you move away from worn-out dung and attack new territories?
As a metaphor for the space program, we cannot help but think of the sneaky behavior of Pyrobolus. The species is eager to leave the dung pile in response to an urge that is not fully understood. What do we know about ourselves?
This does not undermine the achievements and passion of moguls going to space today. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos (Brothers Pyrobolas) have invested in science fiction dreams, following three generations of astronauts and astronauts.
Last week, four unqualified astronauts (including leader Jared Isaacman, a technology billionaire) set out on a mission in one of the SpaceX Dragon capsules to bring people and things to the International Space Station. I went around the earth for 3 days with Inspiration4. Isaacman does not reveal the amount paid for the flight. One of his passengers, Haley Arseno, was once treated for cancer and is now a doctor’s assistant.
A few wealthy and tech-minded people when Dennis Tito, who has turned from an engineer to an investment guru since 2001, paid the reported $ 20 million to spend eight days on the International Space Station. But the experience of this world, some of them multiple times. This summer, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos each boarded their spacecraft to the edge of space, tens of miles above.
The area around the ultimate velvet rope is crowded.
Two years ago, NASA announced that anyone could visit the space station for $ 35,000 a day. Tom Cruise is said to have wanted to make a movie there. Mr. Musk famously said he wanted to die on Mars, but not yet. And Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, has signed up to do a series of Virgin Galactic flight space studies paid by the Southwest Institute in Boulder, Colorado. It works.
What is he going to do with 4 minutes of weightlessness to enjoy on each shot? Quite a lot, arguably not a millionaire, Dr. Stern said in a recent telephone interview.
Among other things, Dr. Stern wears a biomedical harness during his first flight, records his body’s reaction to space flight and zero gravity, and takes pictures of the star field to measure the quality of spacecraft windows. Over the next decade, hundreds of space travelers will wear harnesses and how the general public will react to scientists and doctors, as opposed to healthy and well-trained astronauts. He said it would provide a pile of data on whether to adapt or not. space.
Other items on the agenda could include a search for asteroids that are very close to the Sun, Dr. Stern said.
Virgin Galactic seat prices have since risen to $ 450,000, but it’s still a bargain, Dr. Stern said. Spacecraft in orbit, such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 and Bezos’ Blue Origin, can fly more frequently and cheaper than the traditional rockets NASA used to lift sensitive equipment into the atmosphere. The cost per flight is over $ 4 million.
“I think it will bloom,” Dr. Stern said of the off-orbit project.
I’ve heard this before. Forty years ago, the Space Shuttle was planned to make space travel routine and cheap, almost as good as flying a plane across the Atlantic Ocean. After that, 14 astronauts died.
Now a new generation of rockets, engineers, scientists and explorers are ready to attack the sky. It’s not surprising that wealthy people are at the forefront. Like Maui and Aspen, the universe may become a new playground for the rich. Of course, anyone who pays for Piper always chooses a song. Do you want a club of wealthy white men to set the agenda for science, humanity? (Yes, so far they were all white.)
All their money and enthusiasm fuel innovation and excitement, as well as the work of scientists and engineers. And when things go wrong, like in early September, when the private sector Firefly’s new Alpha rocket explodes on its first launch, it’s not the taxpayers who have to submit the bill, but the shareholders and venture capitalists. It is a list.
Historically, the space program acted as a kind of loss leader, drawing people into science and eventually creating new semiconductor chips and inventing new ways to image the brain. These are what both parties want.
It is appropriate that much of the money behind this Renaissance was earned in the technology sector during the 1950s and 1960s, especially by those who benefited from a wave of government-sponsored research in defense and aerospace.
There is also the question of what they find there. You may encounter a life that is more extraordinary than even a science fiction writer might have imagined, an incredibly desolate territory, or just the uneasy beauty of pathetic nature. Or it could be a biochemical clue to our own beginnings.
No one knows if Elon Musk will eventually die on Mars. But one day, someone will enter history as the first person to die on the Red Planet. In Arthur C. Clark’s story “Transit of Earth from Mars,” his microbes are everything that can use them in a new world, as astronauts are left behind on Mars, wandering into the desert and dying while listening to classical music. Can be nourished. Houston, Pyrobolus will land.