Greening of the Red Planet
10:25 a.m. 18.Feb.2000 PST
WASHINGTON -- Trees that can grow their own protective greenhouses and computers smart enough to figure out things for themselves are some of the tools that will help future space explorers settle Mars, scientists predicted on Friday.
They said it was becoming clear that understanding and using biology will be as important to space exploration as the "harder" sciences of physics and engineering.
Planted Trees can create atmosphere on Mars for human life to survive.
And, they told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, using the imagination is a vital first step to solving the problems barring space travel.
Freeman Dyson, a professor emeritus of physics and astrophysics at Princeton University, thinks space travelers will turn to nature when it comes tobuilding shelters on new planets -- but nature tweaked by modern science.
"The way to get to it clearly is to grow the habitat rather than building it," Dyson told a news conference.
"People are used to living in forests," he added, saying he believed forests could make very nice shelters for, say, Mars colonists.
"You need to have habitats that are cheap and comfortable and user-friendly."
Genetic engineering could help scientists produce trees that could grow a protective greenhouse for themselves to survive the freezing temperatures and thin atmosphere on Mars.
Then the trees could go about their natural job of producing oxygen and creating a comfortable environment like the one plants created on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago.
Dyson said that the water needed to do that is readily available on Mars, and genes could be used that resemble those that animals use to protect themselves from the elements.
"I think of a turtle growing its shell, or a polar bear growing its fur. It is something plants are not very good at but maybe we could teach them," Dyson said.
Yoji Kondo, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard space flight center in Maryland, said such imaginings were key to figuring out ways to settle and explore space.
"When someone like Professor Dyson dreams, our minds become stimulated," Kondo told the news conference.
Kathie Olsen, NASA's chief scientist, said this was not a completely far-fetched idea. "I see the picture," she said.
Olsen described how NASA had already started growing sweet potatoes that would stay in small trays and yet produce nutritious roots.
Olsen, herself a biologist specializing in neurology, said NASA turned to nature in other ways.
She described experiments on building computers that would use neural nets -- structures more resembling a brain than a present-day computer that does calculations one at a time.
They were able to solve problems on their own, at least in computer simulations. "We had a spacecraft we sent all kinds of bizarre instructions," Olsen said. "It was able to decipher them and do what it was supposed to do and not what we told it."
She said they also ran a successful computer simulation in which an aircraft had its wing chopped off and yet managed to successfully land itself.
All the scientists agreed that private sector funds were key to getting people into space, and one big industry would probably drive this -- tourism.
Dyson predicted hotels would go up almost as quickly as laboratories on any space settlement.
"People do love to go to weird places for reasons we can't imagine -- mostly because they have too much money."
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