The space race: What—or who—is waiting at the finish line?

IAN SCLANDERS April 20 1963

The space race: What—or who—is waiting at the finish line?

IAN SCLANDERS April 20 1963

The space race: What—or who—is waiting at the finish line?

A STORY CIRCULATING among people in the U. S. space industry these days concerns an astronaut who lands on Mars. He has been carefully trained for the experience. He has learned the eighteen distinct whistles with which dolphins talk, so as to be able to communicate with “other species” and has been schooled to conceal his revulsion if he encounters a creature that by human standards is utterly hideous and grotesque.

He is met by a Martian four feet tall and four feet wide, whose eyes are where his ears ought to be, and whose ears are where his eyes ought to be, and whose nose is where his chin ought to be. and whose mouth is on top of his head. Hiding his horror, the astronaut says, in dolphin whistles, “Please take me to your leader.” The Martian scans him with disgust, shudders, and whistles back, “Brother, you don’t need my leader, you need a plastic surgeon.”

This strikes space experts as hilarious because most of them are convinced that it — or something like it — could happen within ten years.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has actually awarded an $80,700 contract for a study of the “feasibility and methodology for establishing communications between man and other species.” NASA has already blueprinted a year-and-a-half mission to Mars, with a thirty-day orbit around that planet by a spaceship from which two of the crew would make a landing in an “excursion module.” Researchers say the best opportunity for a try will be between 1970 and 1972, and that it will be years before conditions are as favorable again.

NASA would like to take advantage of the 1970-72 period. So, in a decade, we may have the answer to a question that has fascinated man for centuries: Are there Martians and if so what are they like?

A hint of the answer could come as early as 1964 when a NASA spacecraft will attempt to drop a tiny and ingenious gadget on Mars by parachute. The device, which weighs less than two pounds, will emit two sticky strings fifty feet long when it hits the surface, then reel them in. The strings will pick up dust and micro-organisms, if there are any, and pull them into a chamber containing a chemical broth spiked with radioactive carbon. If the organisms cat and reproduce, they w'ill give off carbon dioxide containing the radioactive carbon, which will be measured by a miniature (ieiger counter. The information will be telemetered to the earth. According to Dr. Lloyd Motz of Columbia University’s Rutherford Observatory, while Mars is far different from the earth, this does not eliminate the possibility of some form of intelligent life. Motz recently startled many of his fellow astronomers by theorizing that there are intelligent beings on six hundred million planets in the Milky Way.

He contended, in January, that Venus as well as Mars could support life. Shortly thereafter, NASA's spacecraft probe of Venus produced data that indicated that the planet has a surface temperature that would incinerate any kind of plant or animal life man can imagine. But. with Venus apparently out of the picture, the giant planet Jupiter, with its twelve moons, suddenly attracted attention. Jupiter, the distance of w'hich from the earth ranges from 367 million miles to six hundred million miles, has previously been regarded as too cold for life — perhaps two hundred below zero. Not so, said Rainer Berger, senior research scientist at the Lockheed-California Company, at this year's meeting of the American Astronautical Society — the freezing clouds of ammonia and methane gas that shroud Jupiter may hide warm oceans hospitable to life.

Lately, opinions about “what’s out there” can be reversed overnight, with so much exploration of othei worlds in progress. Bacteriologists are powdering meteorites in quest of microbes from outer space, and there are acrimonious debates in scientific circles about whether they've found them or not. There are equally acrimonious debates about whether certain odd microscopic formations in meteorites are or arc not fossils.

While the debates rage, radio astronomers, with their enormous dishshaped antennae focused on remote worlds, patiently wait for messages Irom beings who, like humans, have discovered how to send out radio signals that can be deciphered.

These signals would travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second. Yet the worlds from which they may come, if they ever do, are so far away that they will take years to reach us and the senders will be dead and forgotten before an answering message from our earth could bridge billions of billions of miles of space. The idea is frustrating on an epic scale.

IAN SCLANDERS