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Into Orbit -- and Beyond
November 5, 1998

Space exploration in The Atlantic It has been almost four decades since John Glenn first orbited the Earth. In that time, unsurprisingly perhaps, much has changed in the way we imagine space and space travel. At least one thing has remained constant, however, and that is our sense of awe at the prospect of exploring the solar system.

As several Atlantic articles from the late 1950s and early 1960s show, reaching the moon seemed a distant hope, and traveling to any destination beyond that was the stuff of science fiction. In "Keeping House in Outer Space" (October, 1957), Hartley Howe proposed some (charmingly naïve) solutions to problems posed by placing a human being in a space capsule. "Every crewman will require 500 litres of oxygen every 24 hours," Howe wrote at one point in his essay, "too much to be carried on any but the shortest trips. Since plants release oxygen, one answer might be to carry along a batch of the tiny water-borne plants called algae."
Related feature:

  • Flashback: "Our Place in Space," (July, 1997)
    As Sojourner crawls across the Martian landscape, a look back at Atlantic articles tracing our long preoccupation with the extraterrestrial.

  • Three years later the editors of The Atlantic, in "The Atlantic Report: Science and Industry" (December, 1960), giddily summarized the progress of the space program and looked forward to an upcoming breakthrough: "The successful recovery of unharmed animals from both American and Russian space vehicles in recent months will stand as a milestone in the history of mankind. Inevitably, man himself will be the passenger." Soon thereafter, in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and in "The Atlantic Report: Washington" (May, 1962), the editors described the nation's mood. "Whatever doubts there were before Colonel John Glenn's orbital flight," they wrote, "seem to have vanished since. The national exhilaration was taken in the Capital as a clear 'go' for the space program, whatever the cost." Where the space program was going was less clear, but the editors took stock of the situation, writing, "Beyond the moon are Mars and Venus, the investigation of which is already under way. And man will surely want to know what lies beyond -- and beyond."

    Thirty-five years later in The Atlantic, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson took a look at what might lie beyond. In his "Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish" (November, 1997), Dyson recalled Howe's worries about survival in space. Musing on life in other regions of our solar system (one of Dyson's ideas places humans on tethered comets in the Kuiper Belt), Dyson returned to the problem of oxygen supply:
    The most important part of their baggage will be the seeds of plants and animals genetically engineered to survive in an alien climate. On a world that has only a thin atmosphere, like Mars, or no atmosphere at all, like Europa, the most useful seeds will be the seeds of warm-blooded plants. After a hundred years of development of genetic engineering, we will know how to write the DNA to make plants grow greenhouses.... If the human settlers are wise, they will arrive to move into a home already prepared for them by an ecology of warm-blooded plants and animals introduced by earlier unmanned missions.
    We're still a long way from a time in which human beings explore Mars, as writers in the 1960s imagined, or inhabit tree-filled parks on Europa and the Kuiper Belt, as Dyson proposed. But John Glenn's first voyage inspired us to make it to the moon. Will his latest trip be seen as a fleeting sensation, or as a sign of renewed American determination in space?

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