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Colonizing the cosmos

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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.

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.

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