January 30, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

The Space Race: Just Staying Alive

“Ad astra!” the sci-fi slogan announces with eternal optimism: “To the stars!”  Medical doctors and astrobiologists are not sure you would want to stay there long, though.  Some recent findings give a dismal picture of the prospects for life – human or bacterial – at least in our solar system, if that can be assumed a plausible random sample of the universe.
    New Scientist Space announced that future moon astronauts may be in grave danger from solar X-rays.  These come without warning preceding a solar flare.  Without a 21-kg shield 3 square meters in area, an astronaut roving around on the surface could be killed by lethal doses of X-rays before he even knew what was happening.
    Space.com gave depressing news that life on Mars is unlikely to be found.  The reason?  Cosmic radiation levels would likely sterilize the first few meters down.  While this article and one on EurekAlert envision deep aquifers providing a safe haven for life, they both admit that current and planned missions are unlikely to get to such levels.  Earth’s bacteria protect against DNA damage with elaborate repair mechanisms.  These would be unlikely to work, however, in the permafrost of Mars, where life would come near a standstill.  The radiation would not stop for days off by the repair crew.  Tests of Martian radiation levels on Earth organisms under various conditions were not encouraging.  Even if a colony could live for a few million years, the cumulative effects of constant radiation would eventually take their toll.

And that’s under present conditions.  Obviously surviving is easier than emerging in the first place.  Is anyone going to believe for a moment that the first primitive Martian organism evolved with genetic quality control and repair right off the bat?  It’s sad to have to puncture so many dreams of sci-fi writers and early advocates of space flight, bit reality must be faced.  Life underground in perpetual darkness is probably not what the dreamers had in mind.
    These discoveries are having an unexpected benefit, though.  They are generating thankfulness for all we have down here.  As the old hymn expresses, I sing the goodness of the Lord, who filled the earth with food / Who formed the creatures through the Word, and then pronounced them good. / Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, where’er I turn my eye / If I survey the ground I tread, or gaze upon the sky. // There’s not a bird or flow’r below but makes Thy glories known / and storms arise and tempests blow by orders from Thy throne, / While all who borrow life from Thee are ever in Thy care / And everywhere that man may be, Thou God art present there.
    This calls for an encore!  A little Beethoven, perhaps?  Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love; / Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above. / Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away; / Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day! // All Thy works with joy surround Thee, earth and heaven reflect Thy rays, / Stars and angels sing around Thee, center of unbroken praise. / Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea, / Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in Thee.
    The moon and Mars are interesting and worth exploring, but there’s no comparison.  Rejoice and give thanks today on God’s green Earth, the best real estate in the world!

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