Manned flight to Mars?

August 20, 1996|By Gwynne Dyer

THE CLIMATE is good for solar system exploration," said Glenn Carle, at the NASA-Ames Research Center in California.

And then, slipping into the Columbus-and-Queen-Isabella analogy that comes easily to people working in space exploration, he added: "It seems the queen has given us new ships."

Trouble is, he said it back in 1988, and he was only talking about unmanned planetary probes, not real spaceships. The unmanned probes sent out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have produced spectacular fly-by photographs of neighboring planets since then. But there has been no deep-space exploration by actual human beings since the Apollo moon program was shut down, three trips short of the number originally planned, in 1972.

So will the recent announcement that primitive life once existed on Mars by a team of nine NASA-backed scientists finally make the queen give them some real ships to visit Mars? And is that why NASA gave the announcement such huge publicity?

Second question first: of course it is. NASA's business is space exploration, and if it comes across some scientific hypothesis that it believes will persuade the public to pay for the ships, it will back it hard. Nothing illegitimate there, and the scientists involved in the study are all people of high reputation who would not shade their conclusions to suit their sponsor.

More interesting, perhaps, is how the space agency tripped over this particular strategy for drumming up support. After all, the two unmanned Viking spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1976 carried experimental packages to search for signs of microbial life in the Martian soil -- and the results were negative.

But 10 years later, a NASA review conference on the Viking experiments (which got little publicity at the time) was told that the 1976 experiments had very probably found Martian micro-organisms in the soil samples tested by the robot mini-labs.

One of the tests, which involved giving the soil nutrients containing a radioactive isotope that would show up in any gases given off by micro-organisms that took up the nutrients, actually gave a positive result. But the other experiment, which searched for organic debris in the Martian soil, was negative. So the original conclusion was that there was probably not life on Mars.

In 1979, however, Dr. K. Bieman demonstrated that soil from the Antarctic (which does contain micro-organisms) produces almost identical results to those of the second, negative test. In the extreme conditions of the Antarctic (or of Mars) life ticks over so slowly that there is little by way of organic debris in the soil.

Tests failed

In 1981, Dr. G. V. Levin and Dr. P. A. Straat announced that all their efforts to reproduce the positive results of the nutrient experiment using inorganic materials had failed: to get the results witnessed on Mars, micro-organisms had to be present in the soil.

At the 1986 review conference, Drs. Levin and Straat added that photographs of a Martian rock taken some years apart by one of the Viking lander cameras showed changing patterns of greenish patches strongly reminiscent of lichen on earthly rocks.

So NASA had a good case for life on Mars -- and by the mid-1980s cultural shifts and rising ecological awareness were producing a public more likely to be interested in the existence of life elsewhere in the universe.

The so-called "Mars Underground" at the agency, an informal network of people who never accepted the abandonment of NASA's original ambitions for manned interplanetary exploration, went looking for more evidence about extra-terrestrial life that would satisfy a doubtful public. It looks like they have found it in the interior of an ancient rock knocked loose from Mars by an asteroid collision 15 million years ago that eventually fell in Antarctica.

So will they get their ships at last? Maybe. Space activity has survived the collapse of its original stimulus, the Cold War, and a new U.S. space station and cost-efficient second-generation space shuttles are due to be ready within five or six years.

That would make a manned Mars expedition much more feasible and affordable -- and late 20th-century environmental concerns make any investigation of the early origins and eventual fate of other ecospheres a relatively easy sell. We have lived our whole history with only one example, and Mars could be a whole second example of how an ecosphere evolves.

There are no guarantees in U.S. politics, but for a rough gauge of the fluctuations in political support for space exploration in Washington over time, consider what the hard-headed political survivalists in the White House have said about it.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was unequivocal: the United States "must commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Today is a more cautious time than 1961, and more financially strapped, too, but it has recovered from the nadir of the 1980s. What President Clinton said was, for him, quivering on the brink of unequivocal: "The American space program will put its full intellectual power, and technological prowess, behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars."

Is that a promise to actually go there? No. But it's considerably better than what NASA has been used to hearing.

Gwynne Dyer writes a column on world affairs.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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