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Colonizing the cosmos

By Robert C. CowenRobert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor. / November 29, 1984



Krafft A. Ehricke has a novel way of looking at the space program. Many people have called it a new step in human development. He sees it as a major phase in the evolution of life itself.

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Space experts consider Ehricke, a member of the original von Braun rocket team and now with Space Global Company of La Jolla, Calif., to be one of their most farsighted prophets. A scholarly polymath, he can discuss with authority the engineering details of a rocket booster, the sociological challenge of a lunar colony, or the underlying ''strategy'' of organic evolution. It is characteristic of him to discuss spaceflight in basic biological terms, as he did during a recent moon base conference in Washington.

For example, consider metabolism - the process by which organisms transform food into new living material and release energy. Ehricke looks at knowledge and its applications as a form of metabolism - information metabolism. Human beings, he explains, absorb information and ''decompose it - through abstraction and through generalizations and through discovering the laws of nature - into its basic components.'' Then, he adds, ''we rebuild it back up in a form (knowledge) that is storable in our brains and . . . in the machines that we design.''

Ehricke considers ''information metabolism'' a new (on the cosmic scale) way for living forms to interact with the nonliving environment, which, ''for the first time, is a major advance over photosynthesis.'' Just as photosynthesis enabled primitive life to thrive on this planet by tapping an extraterrestrial energy source, so does the capacity to create and use knowledge allow humans to tap other extraterrestrial resources. Most people call it engineering. Ehricke calls it a new dimension of basic biological capability. It is the key to the expansion of Earthly life into the cosmos.

Life's first great crisis occurred eons ago when the primordial ''soup'' ran out of preformed nutrients to sustain the first living cells. ''It was then,'' Ehricke says, ''that we saw, for the first time, two things: ''(First,) . . . what seemed to be an actual limit to growth was no limit. . . . It was a hindrance that had to be overcome. It was overcome by technological advance . . . namely, photosynthesis.

''Secondly, . . . life, if it has to have endurance, . . . cannot rely on the results of the preceding generation of materials.''

Thus primitive life transcended Earth's limits by tapping an abundant space resource - sunshine. With photosynthesis, life took control of its basic staples , forming them from carbon, water, and solar energy. Then, Ehricke says, ''in the womb of this biosphere arose . . . the human being as the seat of the next higher metabolism.'' Thus, he adds, ''. . . the human being is not so much a descendant of the ape or proto-ape. The human being is actually the descendant of photosynthesis.''

And because of the human ability to create and use knowledge - Ehricke's information metabolism - life has gained a command of inorganic matter far broader than that conferred by photosynthesis. Information metabolism, he says, ''is the metabolism on which life moves now over into space itself.'' It's quite a vision.

You might say Ehricke is merely restating the obvious fact that modern engineering makes spaceflight possible. Yet, by putting it in this biological perspective, he emphasizes the deeper significance. After all, if space engineering does enable us to colonize the moon, Mars, and perhaps other solar system bodies, Earthly life indeed will enter a profoundly challenging new phase.

Ehricke would say it is responding to the ''extraterrestrial imperative.'' Just as you can't run a motor in a closed garage, so the machines of life can't run in a closed environment. You have to have an open world. Life first responded to this imperative when it broke out of the closed environment of the primordial ''soup'' by tapping extraterrestrial energy. Now, Ehricke says, we must again break out of what has again become a closed world.

In his view, humanity's ability to command a broader range of resources - as, for example, through its chemical or nuclear industries - forces us to transcend Earth. Our planet cannot support our information metabolism and cope with its waste products by itself. That is why, Ehricke says, you may become a prophet of doom and of limits to growth if your vision does not reach beyond this planet.

By moving out to the moon or Mars, Ehricke sees us gaining new resources, creating environments that are better adapted to the needs of our information metabolism. We can ensure continued growth ''as long as we have an open world, as long as we are not shying away from overcoming (our problems) by technology and by our own development.''

This last point is crucial to Ehricke's thinking. He considers technology to be an invaluable aid, but not a total solution to humanity's problems. He observes: ''Life shows us that technological advances (including photosynthesis) are the road to growth. But based on those technological advances have to come the advances of the species and the advances of our civilization.''

He adds that a population on the moon or Mars will, eventually, ''be different from us.'' They will, he says hopefully, become civilizations of ''world builders, the builders of new worlds'' who outgrow the world-destroying tendencies of Earthly chauvinism, bigotry, and hate.

As noted, it's quite a vision.