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Arthur C. Clarke's DNA odyssey

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Arthur C. Clarke

Science-fiction great Arthur C. Clarke never made it to outer space - but his DNA did, as part of a suborbital flight staged last year from New Mexico. And the odyssey isn't over yet. The capsule containing a sample of Clarke's hair was recovered, and some of that hair could be sent to the moon sometime in the next few years on a Google Lunar X Prize flight. A little bit of it will be saved for an even longer trip, into deep space … and a kind of immortality.

The tale of Clarke's hair begins back in 1999, when space entrepreneur Rick Fleeter journeyed to the author's home in Sri Lanka to snip some strands of hair for a project aimed at sending DNA samples to the stars. The project, called Team Encounter, appealed to Clarke because it left open the possibility that an advanced civilization could reconstruct a person's genetic code from the hair.

"Instead of launching a whole body into space, why not send a few DNA strands?" Clarke asked in his account of the hair-snipping operation. "Then in principle at least any human being could be re-created, physically if not mentally."

Clarke even included a handwritten note addressed to the future, reading, "Fare well, my clone."

Team Encounter ended up going nowhere, but the sample was retained for years by the venture's corporate heir, Houston-based Space Services Inc. "It was a bumpy road with Team Encounter, but Arthur was good enough to tell us we could keep his DNA," the company's chief executive officer, Charles Chafer, told me today.

Chafer said Clarke's DNA finally had a fleeting date with space last April. A small capsule containing the hair was included with more than 200 other capsules bearing bits of cremated remains - including ashes from the late NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper and "Star Trek" actor James "Scotty" Doohan.

All those capsules took a suborbital ride to space and back on an UP Aerospace rocket launched from New Mexico's Spaceport America. After three weeks of searching, the payload was recovered, and most of the capsules were returned to loved ones.

But not Clarke's.

"It's sitting right here in front of me," Chafer said. "Capsule No. 74."

He's planning to put some of the hair on the next mission to send memorial capsules on the moon, most likely in cooperation with one of the teams trying to win the multimillion-dollar Google Lunar X Prize. Space Services' subsidiary, Celestis, played a part in a similar operation to send the remains of planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker to the moon aboard NASA's Lunar Prospector probe back in 1999.

Chafer noted that the moon served as one of the key settings for Clarke's best-known tale, "2001: A Space Odyssey." That's where spacefarers found the first in a series of mysterious monoliths that figured so prominently in the story.

"It's really the right place, I think, to send his DNA: to the moon," Chafer said.

The Celestis service offers a lunar option for paying clients, priced at $12,500 for sending a gram of material to the moon's surface. Chafer said he expects to have 400 to 1,000 clients for the next "Luna" flight by the time a spacecraft is ready to launch, probably sometime in the next couple of years.

Clarke's hair would fly gratis, of course. "This one's on us," Chafer said.

It's part of the routine at Celestis to hold back a portion of each memorial sample in reserve, in case the first flight fails. In Clarke's case, Chafer said he'll be holding back a little extra for a future one-way trip to deep space, with the timing yet to be determined. The sample capsules are more likely to stay intact during the long "Voyager" mission - meaning Clarke's DNA could conceivably meet up with interstellar travelers, just as the author had always hoped.

"That will give him a greater chance than just having him parked on the moon," Chafer said.

Someday, perhaps a super-civilization will indeed create a copy of Arthur C. Clarke - but something tells me that even a Clarke clone won't reach the heights that the original did during his 90 years on Earth.

After all, Clarke was formed by the scientific enthusiasm of the early 20th century, the technological challenges of World War II and its aftermath, and the cultural ferment of a society that reached out beyond Earth for the first time in the 1950s and 1960s. Would his clone turn out the same way if he were nurtured by alien super-beings?

Clarke's writings may well be as enduring as his spaceborne DNA. Although his best-known works were written decades ago, they still resonate in the 21st century. If you had to choose a place to start, would it be "2001"? Or "Childhood's End," the tale of a long-running alien encounter? How about "Rendezvous With Rama"? Or "Dial F for Frankenstein," the short story that foreshadowed the World Wide Web?

Longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Wade Whitlock has his own suggestion - which is worth passing along as a recommendation for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club:

"A light has gone out. Sir Arthur C. Clarke died today. It is a pity he couldn't live to see a space elevator rise! May I suggest that 'Profiles of the Future' be a Used Book Club book. It is a very interesting look at prediction of the future. Not given as much credit as it deserves."

The Cosmic Log Used Book Club (or CLUB Club for short) highlights books with cosmic themes that can be easily found at your local library or used-book shop. Many of Clarke's dozens of books and story collections would fit that description. Feel free to leave your own reading suggestions - as well as your tributes to Sir Arthur - in the comment section below.