Suspicions about frozen green stuff

August 20, 1996|By Howard Kleinberg

IS THERE nothing without a political propensity these days? There is something strongly suspicious about the sudden discovery of minuscule, primordial life on Mars. It comes at a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is fighting for its fiscal life with a conservative Congress.

One might question how long NASA has been sitting on this one, using it possibly as a wild card in a poker game, a get-out-of-jail-free ticket in a turn of Monopoly.

The announcement has set in motion, among some, a tumult to race to Mars to find other millions of years old pieces of life -- if, indeed, there ever was life on Mars.

My friend Kenny is no scientist; he's a haberdasher. But he's no fool, either. And Kenny wants to know, even before we start accepting as fact what they say that slight specimen is, how we have come to determine that a meteorite embedded in the ice of Antarctica millions of years ago really came from Mars.

After all, over a period of millions of years, meteorites from thousands of places might have plopped into our environment. Perhaps this one came from the Andromeda Galaxy, or from around Jupiter.

But let us give the scientists the benefit of the doubt; let us assume they are precise when they say the meteorite came from Mars.

Let us also assume that, indeed, once there was some sort of life on that planet -- not the kind that supports little green men, or even the Jetsons, but life nevertheless.

We are at a point in our being as a nation when the pocketbook is being watched closely. At times, hard decisions have to be made.

Remember when, because of tighter purse strings, the music department in "Mr. Holland's Opus" had to be eliminated by the school principal in a choice between reading, writing, arithmetic and music? Those of us who saw the movie, as well as Mr. Holland, really hated that principal.

But what other choice did he have?

Now appears before us, during tight fiscal times, a call to find out more about Mars, to explore what life might have been there, to use it as a stepping stone to find other forms of life elsewhere in the galaxy and universe.

Were it not for the recent discovery, any talk of additional funding for NASA for a Mars probe would be swiftly cast aside. But as a result of the Mars proclamation, President Clinton plans to call a "space summit" sometime this fall.

What NASA already has done to enrich our lives through experiment and discovery in its many space projects has been remarkable. Colossal advancements have been made in the fields of medicine, telecommunications, weather forecasting, food and diet, to name just a few, as a result of the space program.

But this is not the time to be spending billions of dollars searching for more amoeba-like structures on Mars; not when it will cut into the funding of what remains of critical domestic projects.

This is not the thinking of a member of the Flat Earth Society but of one who sincerely is concerned about the fiscal future of this nation, of one who hears a presidential candidate calling for a 15 percent tax cut with no program on how to make it up.

We need to examine our priorities and our sensibilities.

Howard Kleinberg is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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