November 24, 2013
The 50th anniversary of the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy has prompted examination of his presidential legacies and in particular, the role he played in our race to the Moon. In an op-ed, Rand Simberg opines on how space buffs magnify and distort Kennedy’s space legacy – that in fact, JFK really didn’t care one whit for spaceflight and only challenged the Soviets to a Moon race for near-term, earthly political purposes.
No one conversant with the history of the Apollo program could seriously doubt that the impetus for setting the goal of a lunar landing within a decade was driven primarily by geopolitical considerations, rather than by a romantic notion of colonizing the Solar System. But there’s a bit more to the story. Simberg’s piece fails to recognize that close, hands-on experience with the unfamiliar often changes attitudes and that prejudices evolve over time.
Upon taking office, Kennedy had little interest in the space program but like Eisenhower with Sputnik, intervening events abruptly forced a change in his outlook. In April of 1961 Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth – the first flight of a human in space – engulfing Kennedy in a press feeding frenzy as a triumphant Soviet Union laid claim to one of the most important laurels of the space age. With recriminations still echoing throughout Washington, a second national security disaster emerged – the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed invasion of Cuba by American-sponsored anti-Castro exiles. The new administration appeared both inept and indecisive. The Gagarin space flight and the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba occurred during the build-up of a devastating nuclear arsenal by the Soviet Union, amid bellicose pronouncements from its bombastic leader, Nikita Sergeivich Khrushchev – “We will bury you!”
Against this high-temperature political background, Kennedy looked for a significant technical project with which to challenge the Soviets. Kennedy thought that the large-scale desalination of seawater would help win the hearts of emerging “Third World” nations. A key consideration was choosing an effort that the Soviets could not win in the next few years. True enough, space was not his original choice but in order to give the United States enough time to build up and use its industrial and technical might (as well as provide payback on politically realistic timescales), Kennedy needed a challenging long-term national goal.
By assigning his Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson to look into possible space projects and report back to him, Kennedy had placed the decision in the hands of someone already committed to an accelerated and vigorous space effort. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson – a vocal advocate for large-scale space projects – had previously helped shepherd the 1958 Space Act (that created NASA) though the Congress. It was Johnson who asked NASA’s James Webb and Hugh Dryden for options.
In a memo to Johnson, Kennedy specifically asked, “Is there a space program we can undertake and win?” With Johnson’s committee working closely with Wernher von Braun on what was technically possible in the near- and far-terms, it became apparent that the Soviets had a clear advantage in rocket boosters, making any attempt to match Soviet space accomplishments in low Earth orbit within the next few years likely to fail. On the other hand, if the U.S. were to pick a goal which neither country could achieve in the near-term, America’s edge in technology and resources might give them enough of an advantage to win in the long run – making it a real race.
A manned mission to the Moon emerged as the logical goal and was duly reported to the President. Kennedy was willing but hesitant – initial cost estimates for Apollo were on the order of $40 billion (this was in a saner fiscal era, when a billion dollars meant real money). Committing to spend that much, while not unprecedented, would give politicians of any stripe pause. Nonetheless, Kennedy moved forward with the Moon landing challenge, announcing his initiative in a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.
So we now have a picture of a U.S. President, due to political circumstances, forced into and agreeing to a program he was reluctant to undertake. According to Simberg’s piece, this is the meaning of Apollo. What’s missing is that (as they like to say in Washington) Kennedy “evolved” in his beliefs. While initially willing (but cool) to the space program, his continued attention to “the race” over the remainder of his presidency suggests that he became more keenly interested over time. Kennedy, often guided by von Braun who would brief him on technical details, made multiple visits to the new NASA field centers. Kennedy became a “buff” – just like so many of us in the 1960s, drawn up in the excitement of the new space effort. Enthralled by events like a static firing test of Saturn engines at the Marshall Space Flight Center in May of 1963, he began soaking up space knowledge. He was hooked and in it to win it.
Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 has become inextricably tied to the American can-do spirit and cited whenever someone wants to capture the inherent romanticism and steely determination of the American effort. Apollo was not some tiresome political task or a pork-shoveling boondoggle to JFK. It was about winning a battle in a very real Cold War. It is in this context that President Kennedy’s September 1963 offer to go to the Moon jointly with the Russians must be understood. Yet, part of a speech given at the United Nations, has been interpreted to show that Kennedy was ambivalent toward space and was attempting to dodge the heavy political and fiscal costs of building the Apollo system. This notion has led some to surmise that had he lived, Kennedy would not have been as ardent a supporter of the space program as we space cadets believe that he was.
Words were effective weapons during the Cold War. At every opportunity, Kennedy contrasted the open, non-military nature of the American space program with the secretive and presumably bellicose nature of the Soviet one. This contrast was made explicit in Kennedy’s initial rationale for the lunar effort when he said, “Whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share” (emphasis added). By 1963, Kennedy knew Khrushchev’s mind-set as well as any foreign leader. He knew that Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviet Presidium would never accept a proposal for a joint lunar mission – they were suspicious, paranoid triumphalists, as their never-ending blitz of space propaganda illustrated. Moreover, at this stage of the space race, the Soviets were clearly ahead, having racked up a number of headline-grabbing “firsts” including simultaneous multiple crews and spacecraft, four-day long missions, and orbiting the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.
By making an offer for a joint American-Soviet lunar mission, Kennedy appeared reasonable and forthcoming. “See? America has nothing but peaceful intentions for space. If our Soviet colleagues have similar intentions, as they claim, why do they not join us when we ask them to?” Jack Kennedy, a decorated World War II veteran and the consummate Cold Warrior, knew how to play the propaganda card. His offer did not represent a desire to back away from his U.S. commitment to space. It was a calculated move by the United States in the ongoing war of words, threats and confrontations that constituted the Cold War.
It’s tempting to retrospectively apply today’s intellectual template to past events, but by doing so it distorts the historical record. A look at Kennedy’s approach to the Soviet Union shows that his inclination was to confront them when necessary. The Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his presidency followed by the Berlin crisis led Kennedy to believe that Khrushchev and the Soviets must be opposed on the world stage, up to and including space. Initially cool to the very idea of human spaceflight, Kennedy took the concept to new heights of accomplishment by setting – and ultimately achieving – a goal that captured the imaginations of war-weary people around the world.
November 9, 2013
Should those on Earth control and restrict the use of off-Earth real estate or should people use and profit from what they find in space? We have conducted reconnaissance and mapping of celestial bodies for centuries using telescopes, orbital and landing spacecraft, and (forty years ago) explored it with people. Earth’s scientists have studied the returned data and we’ve dreamed of returning to the Moon and to new places where humanity has never set foot. Entrepreneurs and social engineers see a time in the near future when we will make that next step and they each hold somewhat different views — some want to develop and capitalize on their investment, some want to preserve and permit only limited access.
In a recent Popular Science article, Veronique Greenwood argues for having the Moon declared an “International Park – an off-World Heritage site.” And not just the Apollo sites but all 14 million square miles of the lunar surface. Greenwood likes the legal model of Antarctica, an entire continent that the nations of the world agreed to not develop but use solely for scientific study. Understanding that profit motives will be behind the drive to the Moon, she allows there may be carve-outs for mining (after environmental impact studies) but legally, the Moon will be protected as a preserve for history and science, serving as the template for human expansion beyond the Moon. She doesn’t want it “damaged.”
Greenwood’s concerns stem from her belief that humans (even when they’re careful) “tromp all over things” and that without government preservation and oversight, cultural artifacts on the Moon (such as the Apollo 11 crew’s “One Small Step” footprints and various “important craters”) are in danger of destruction. She argues that “because the Moon was part of Earth until 4.5 billion years ago” (a proposition not yet established), the United Nations should have legal sovereignty over its use and disposition. She notes that the 1979 Moon Treaty was never ratified (“flopped spectacularly”), a presumed “victim of the Cold War era.” In fact, the treaty’s “flop” had nothing to do with the Cold War – a concerted lobbying effort by various space advocacy groups (such as the L-5 Society) was largely responsible for the Senate’s refusal to ratify it. No nation that had space faring capability at that time ratified the Moon Treaty.
Her article illustrates that the “green” anti-development worldview has expanded to include opposition to unfettered space utilization. Because we’re not dealing with anything green, I suggest that we dub the lunar environmentalists “Grays.” Stemming from their belief that humans are harming the Earth, the Grays fear that it is not right to allow unrestricted access and development of the Moon. Fifty years after those interloping Apollo astronauts tromped on, drove over and kicked up a lot of dust on the Moon, a more enlightened humanity will return to peacefully – and carefully – explore its surface and, in the words of the National Park Service, “Taking only photographs, leaving only footprints.” If environmental impact studies allow it, some limited mining activity might be permitted, presumably to pay for these Luna Park overseers.
The analogy to Antarctica, beloved of academics, is of limited value in this instance. The reason nations of the world do not bother to mine or drill for oil in Antarctica is that there are alternative and cheaper sources of oil and minerals that do not require the costly build up of infrastructure in that challenging environment. Such is not true for the Moon; the alternative to using the resources of the Moon is to bring everything you need with you from the deep gravity well of the Earth. With launch costs of thousands of dollars per pound (and unlikely to come down significantly for the foreseeable future), it makes good sense to look for and obtain as much of the required “dumb mass” (i.e., air, water, shielding and propellant) needed for extended presence from “local” sources – the extraterrestrial bodies themselves. Launch from Earth should be reserved only for high information density items – high-technology equipment, instruments and people. The raw materials of space will provision us – and we need to learn how to do it out there, starting with the Moon. You cannot lock up new territory and then expect entrepreneurs to invest their capital in getting you there.
While Greenwood uses Antarctica as a model for the Moon, in my mind, a better analogy is Alaska, a vast area (656,424 square miles) of great natural beauty and abundant resources. Alaska serves a multitude of purposes, including mining, fishing, oil and gas production, tourism, recreation and settlement, as well as maintaining and protecting vast reserves of national and state wilderness. No one could call Alaska a decimated paradise or an industrial wasteland – it is an immense landscape with room for every imagined activity, commercial and non-commercial. It is a harsh place, yet one where self-reliant humans migrated for profit, play and its wide-open spaces. It also has the virtue of being part of a self-governing republic, not an “administrative area” controlled by international bureaucrats. And yet, even though the land has been developed and used, the people have conserved, protected and managed the landscape and resources of the state. But Greenwood points to the Antarctica “peaceful and scientific use of” model, whereby the U.N. would own and control the Moon, thereby setting a precedent for the rest of the Solar System. Talk about throwing cold water on pioneering outer space! Greenwood’s suggestions certainly do that.
Setting aside the obvious objection that the United Nations has not shown any particular management capability (nor does it possess the ability to oversee natural resources 250,000 miles from Earth), a more important objection to this proposal is the negative impact it will have on investment toward the development and support of commercial space activity. If advocates of commercial spaceflight think dealing with the federal government is difficult, they haven’t seen anything until they start dealing with a U.N. authority. Greenwood wants “important craters” protected from defacement by ATVs, but that begs the question as to who decides which craters are “important,” what needs to be protected, and who gets those limited mining rights? Would she leave these environmental assessments and commercial allocation judgments in the hands of U.N. decision makers and arbitrators?
The basic problem with the attitude of the Grays is that it is misdirected. There is no “ecology” to preserve on the Moon because there is no life there. The only thing that can be preserved is the Moon’s pristine state – an ancient surface unsullied by the tread of endless footprints. It would take tens of thousands of years, if then, (since few would live on the Moon) to put a footprint on every square meter of the lunar surface, an area greater than the continent of Africa. Even the most rare and valuable terrains on the Moon – the water-containing areas near the poles – are enormous regions, hundreds of square kilometers in extent, containing tens of billions of tons of water ice and other valuable deposits. As these materials are the most accessible and useful products in near Earth space, they are crucial to the creation of new space faring capability.
If the entire territory of the Moon is designated the property of Earth with U.N. oversight, we will handicap ourselves from becoming a space faring species. We must learn how to use what we find in space to create new capabilities. Even the most ardent developers would not object to preserving the historical sites of the first impacts of spacecraft on the Moon (Luna 2), the first soft-landers (Luna 9 and Surveyor 1), and of course, the site of the first human landing on another world (Apollo 11). But the rest of the Moon should be open to exploration, development and use. It is wrong to restrict the use and development of whole new worlds in order to assuage the overly emotional and misguided aesthetic sensibilities of the Grays, as opposed to opening up of a frontier that can be profitably used and enjoyed for the benefit of all humanity.
September 24, 2013
An interesting report in the Washington Post relates that the current Mars rover Curiosity has found no evidence for methane on that planet, a finding that contradicts some earlier reports of the presence of that gas in the martian atmosphere. The report goes on to say that this finding “disappointed” some members of the Curiosity science team. Supposedly after earlier studies detected methane in telescopic spectra, they had “high hopes” for a positive result from the Curiosity rover.
Various reactions to this revelation are interesting, as they suggest something about the current mania for the search for extraterrestrial life, as well as something about the ultimate rationale for our national space program. Whence comes this obsession and why does it drive our space efforts and dominate space news coverage? Science fiction dreams have long been a part of the space effort, with many working in the field receiving their first exposure to space topics via that medium played out in print, film and video. From bug-eyed Martians invading the Earth to slimy, acid-dripping killers stowed away aboard spacecraft, the obsession with extraterrestrial life took firm hold of the human imagination.
This sense of fascination is so strong that space advocates have tried to harness it as a way to justify (if not coerce) increased amounts of spending on the civil space program. After the end of the Apollo program, with its clearly geopolitical goals accomplished, the space program needed a new long-term rationale, one that would ensure its continuation over many years. Carl Sagan, an astronomer fascinated by the possibility of life on other worlds, emerged as the principal spokesman for the idea that searching for ET was the “true and good” rationale for exploring space. The dominant theme of his television series Cosmos was the vastness of the universe with endless possibilities for finding life “out there.” For a public television program, it was a huge hit (but to keep some perspective, in 1980 when the series first aired, it did not crack even the top thirty, which included such fare as Dallas, The Dukes of Hazard, and The Love Boat).
Seeking to justify federal spending on space, the Quest for Life Elsewhere (QFLE, as I shall call it) was enthusiastically adopted by the scientific community. As a slogan it was catchy, but effectively got nowhere in terms of policy influence until 1996, with the discovery of what was claimed to be bacterial microfossils in ALHA 84001 (a meteorite that on the basis of several lines of evidence, we believe comes from Mars). This rock has tiny features that resemble fossil bacteria as seen in Earth rocks. This discovery was considered sensational at the time and even resulted in a nationally televised Rose Garden statement by the President of the United States. More significantly for policy, the Mars scientific community parleyed that discovery into a program series of robotic missions, each one increasingly more ambitious (read: expensive) to be sent to Mars over the coming decade(s). This mission series was established outside the agency’s traditional lines of mission proposal and accountability systems and became (in effect), an “entitlement” for the Mars science community and JPL, who possesses the agency monopoly on missions to Mars.
A series of increasingly sophisticated spacecraft were then sent to Mars over the next few years, each one finding that the planet at one time had liquid water at or near its surface and that the climate of the planet has changed, perhaps many times, over the course of its history. But no evidence of extant or former life has been found. As portrayed in the article, this latest finding is another dashing of the “hopes” of the Mars scientists. Funny – I always thought that the job of the scientist was to describe the universe as it is and how it works, not to “hope” for a confirmation of one’s preferred hypothesis (gained through the eyes of a machine afforded almost human-like adoration).
Which brings us to my point above about the use of QFLE as a rationale for the American civil space program. The goal of adopting such a rationale is to ensure an enduring, long-term space exploration program. From a practical perspective, the danger of using QFLE as the primary goal for space is that if you do not find life, you’ve essentially failed and have probably written your programmatic obituary. To date, the Mars science community has pled for a verdict of incomplete – we simply have not yet gone to the correct place with the correct tools and techniques to verify what they “hope” to find. If this rationalization works, Mars exploration becomes an endless program – we can always say this, no matter wherever we go on Mars and whatever we find. In fact, the problem with that rationale is that such pleading may backfire. When most people think of alien life, they have images of ET in mind, not pond scum. If the public understood that’s what we are really looking for, I suspect that a lot of the support for this crusade would quickly dissipate (I believe much of it has already).
My objection to using the QFLE as a rationale for space is on a more philosophical level. Even if you finally do find martian microbes, what have you proven? There are virtually no modern scientists who do not (to some degree) subscribe to the materialist paradigm of life’s origins, in which given the right compositions, energy and environment, life will naturally arise and evolve. This is what scientists believe about the Earth and they most certainly believe it about other planets. So if we finally do find Mars microbes, either ancient or existing, all we would have done is to prove something that most scientists believe now anyway. The stridency of many scientists in their obsession to obtain “proof” of extraterrestrial life seems like other agendas are at work here, which I pass over without comment.
In science, new findings come all the time and it is highly likely that this “negative” result will soon be countered by some new and compelling “evidence” to the contrary. I think that a long-range strategic rationale to explore and use the Solar System requires re-thinking. A space program needs to return societal value for its cost. I believe that there is abundant value in making our near-term goal the creation of a flexible and permanent system that opens up space for many different and varied uses. Making the space program a Quest for Life Elsewhere is a prescription for failure and ultimately, termination.
September 5, 2013
Generally speaking, I hate “mop up” posts wherein stories, anecdotes, factoids and announcements are lumped together solely for the purpose of clearing the writer’s desk. But that’s what I have here, so let’s get on with it.
Despite being written off by many as a dead letter topic, the Moon (an object of scientific and commercial interest and utility) continues to confound experts and frustrate naysayers.
You may have recently learned about yet another discovery of lunar water. The “new” this time around is that we have apparently succeeded in identifying a form of hydration (i.e., the OH molecule) present in mineral structures in the central peak of the mid-latitude crater Bullialdus (20.7° S, 22.2° W; 60 km diameter). Past identifications of lunar water involve either the polar dark regions or high-latitude, solar wind implanted OH and H2O molecules. We’ve known about water-bearing minerals in the lunar samples for the past couple of years, but this is the first time we have identified them using remote sensing. This water is present in extremely minute amounts (tens of parts per million); it has nothing to do with the possibility of extracting water for human use, but rather, is a clue to the hydration state of the deep interior, and ultimately, the origin of the Moon.
We are finding that the early Moon had its own indigenous water, not an obvious consequence of the giant impact origin model, and that this water participated in early melting events. Water is an important compound in these processes by lowering the threshold temperatures of various significant reactions and creating an environment in which explosive, volatile-charged volcanic eruptions may occur. Work continues on understanding the meaning and significance of this interior water to the geological processes of the Moon.
The latest edition of the Global Space Exploration Roadmap has been released and to the astonishment of the press and many other observers, human lunar return is still prominently featured (minus NASA) in the strategic pathways considered by the world’s space agencies. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone – the international partners were taken aback (and angered) by the unilateral renunciation of lunar return by the U.S. in 2010. They have remained firm and consistent in their belief and knowledge that the Moon is a critical step toward developing genuine space faring capability, a path which they have no intention of abandoning. In this, our partners show more insight and sophistication than we do. There are simply too many advantages in developing technology and practicing operational skills on the Moon, all applicable to future human missions beyond low Earth orbit. In a sop to the reluctant Americans, human near-Earth asteroid missions are mentioned. But in the minds of the international partners, the benefits of human lunar return will not be subsumed by a domestic political agenda.
I am an occasional member and contributor to the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG), an informal working group of lunar scientists, engineers and developers who have devised a “roadmap” (i.e., a sequenced, strategic plan) for lunar exploration. This roadmap has been completed and we have developed a couple of ancillary products – an executive summary booklet (being readied for distribution), which will describe the major findings of the three-year road mapping exercise. It will be illustrated by wonderful Technicolor artwork of missions and surface activities (the creation of pretty pictures and graphics we have down pat), and a one-page “fact sheet” describing the value and rationale for human lunar return. The compact fact sheet is particularly good. It summarizes the main points about lunar return, its value to the nation and to science and society in general. This roadmap follows a lot of the concepts about which I write. If you visit Develop Cislunar Space Next, you will recognize many of the same themes and ideas. I am very happy with this product; it is concise and well crafted. I thank my LEAG colleagues for their scientific insight and technical acumen.
About 15 years ago, I wrote a reasonably well-received book published by the Smithsonian Institution Press titled The Once and Future Moon. In it I described the then-recent findings from the Clementine and Galileo missions about the Moon’s processes and history, and summarized what we had learned about the Moon from the Apollo missions. I also took the opportunity to make the case for a return to the Moon (some things never change) and how we might use it to create new capabilities in space. That book is now out of print, as well as rendered somewhat antiquated by the explosion this last decade of new information from data returning from lunar robotic missions and subsequent studies. Many have urged me to revise that book and I am considering writing an updated second edition. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian Press terminated their “Library of the Solar System” series and is not interested in publishing a new edition (but will give me copyright to the material). I am investigating the interest of other publishers and will keep you posted on what develops.
Next – an announcement. For some time I have watched the progress of many of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competitors. It’s a mixed bag, with some teams pretty much out of the running and some who have a decent chance to actually fly a mission. I have been very impressed with the team and the approach of one company, Moon Express (MoonEx), located at NASA Ames Research Center in California. Moon Express has plans for small and medium class lunar landers, using a soon-to-be-unveiled design that seems both robust and affordable. I have agreed to be associated with them on a part-time basis as their Chief Scientist. As such, I will evaluate possible mission scenarios and profiles, devise sample payloads, identify possible instruments and their investigators and vendors, and help define measurement requirements and operational scenarios.
I like working with small missions (my first mission experience was with Clementine, a small DoD-NASA mission in the 1990s and I was the Principal Investigator for the Mini-SAR radar experiment on India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission) and believe that these small missions deliver a lot of scientific and exploratory bang for a reasonably small amount of bucks. I have worked previously on projects with some of the Moon Express personnel, including Principal Systems Engineer Steve Bailey on the world’s first private lunar lander project (Blastoff.com in the late 1990s) and with CEO Bob Richards, when we were both affiliated with Odyssey Moon a few years ago. I am also happy that my longtime colleague and NASA Advisory Council member Jack Burns has joined the company on a similar part time basis as Chair of the Moon Express Science Advisory Board. I look forward to helping Moon Express achieve their goal of winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE and developing a truly commercial system to deliver payloads to the Moon.
Look for an article on the origin of the Moon written by yours truly, coming soon to a special web-based edition of Astronomy magazine. I’ll post the information when it appears. My recent post here at Air & Space describes the call for small lunar lander missions. The last of the (currently planned) NASA missions to the Moon is scheduled for launch this Friday, September 6, 2013. Here’s wishing LADEE a safe, successful and productive journey.
So I’m happy to report that there are signs of “life” about our future on the lunar frontier.
March 13, 2013
The news of the day is abuzz with the new and astounding discoveries from the Curiosity rover that Mars once had an environment conducive to life. Once it was warmer, wetter, more hospitable. Water flowed over its surface. The chemicals necessary for life’s emergence and development are present on Mars, suggesting that life may have arisen there in the distant past. So why do I have this sense of déjà vu? Perhaps because this new “result” gets trumpeted anew every few years.
The fixation on the possibility of martian life has been a constant throughout the history of the space program, starting before the first planetary mission to Mars in 1965 (Mariner 4) and then waxing and waning in likelihood every few years. Mariner 4 showed us a moon-like Mars, with a rough, cratered surface and thin cold atmosphere. The stock for martian life fell accordingly. A few years later, the twin probes Mariners 6 and 7 flew by Mars, again returning pictures of a cratered surface, but with hints of the presence of unusual terrain, possibly the result of subsurface ice. The stock of the life story rose slightly, but the barren cold desert of the martian surface was hardly a Garden of Eden.
A big breakthrough came with the flight of Mariner 9 in 1971. To the astonishment of most planetary scientists, it revealed a world of giant volcanoes, canyons much larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth, and amazingly, channels that looked as though they were carved by running water. The idea of life on Mars – at least in the distant past – gained credence and served as a springboard for the Viking missions of 1976, America’s bicentennial year. These two missions consisted of both a lander and an orbiter and were specifically designed to test the surface of Mars for the possibility of life. Both landers returned results that were immediately interpreted as negative (although there was some dissent); the surface materials of Mars had a very reactive chemistry, but no organic material was found in the soil, even at concentration levels measured in parts-per-billion. Thus, we had the conundrum of abundant landform evidence for an early, warm and wet climate yet chemical evidence for an almost sterilizing environment at present. If Mars had life, it must have been present only in the distant past. The results from Viking were considered so definitive that no mission was sent to Mars for over 20 years.
What precipitated the new flurry of interest in Mars about twenty years ago was the finding that, astonishingly enough, we have samples in our possession from Mars in the form of meteorites, the so-called “SNC meteorites” (the initials of Shergotty, Nakhla, and Chassigny, the first three meteorites recognized to be of martian origin). It had been thought that the preservation of rocks intact during ejection from the planet at escape velocities and greater was not possible, but in this case, observations trumped theory. Even more amazing, it was claimed that in one of these putative martian rocks, small features within it were actually fossils of ancient bacteria. Although highly controversial then (and now), this finding was given widespread publicity (including even a Rose Garden Presidential statement) and the agency used this discovery to sell a program to send a series of probes to Mars at every two-year opportunity for the next decade.
This fleet of orbiters and landers returned an abundance of new, high-quality data on the martian surface, its composition, the locations of water and its environment. Each mission confirmed that water had once been present on Mars. Each mission confirmed that at present, the surface was not conducive to life. Each lander went to a site that was thought to have been more promising for the development of life than the ones that preceded it. As the years rolled on, each “new discovery” of the former presence of water and favorable environmental conditions on Mars became something of a joke among my colleagues in the planetary science business – how many times can you claim the discovery of something already known?
Lest you think that I am simply expressing my lunar parochialism, I note that this same media phenomenon occurs in regard to the existence of water ice at the poles of the Moon. The theoretical possibility of ice on the Moon had been known for many years. We first found direct evidence for it in 1996 with an improvised radio experiment on the Clementine mission. Subsequent studies from Earth and a variety of other space missions caused the stock for lunar polar water to rise and fall, depending on who issued the latest press release for their published work. Finally, the collision of the LCROSS impactor in 2010 removed all doubt – there was and is ice there, at least at the south pole and in quantities greater than could be reasonably expected to have resulted simply from solar wind deposition. Yet each new finding was announced as a new “discovery” in the press. So this media frenzy is not simply related to Mars mania or even to the over-preoccupation with finding life elsewhere.
The basic fact is that most in the news business do not understand (or at least, do not fully appreciate) the incremental, cumulative nature of modern science. It is seldom indeed when a single experiment or observation causes a scientific revolution. Moreover, it is equally seldom that a breakthough comes from one person or even one research team. Science is a complex, interdisciplinary effort. It makes progress, but slowly and in a manner that includes both leaps forward and (sometimes) backward. Only over long periods of time (decades and greater) is it apparent what the key observation or measurement is and how it fits into a pattern of understanding. Each new mission result adds knowledge, sometimes in great leaps and sometimes in increments so tiny that one can question whether anything new is being learned at all. But even a repeated observation has value in science – in fact, if an observation is not repeatable, it is not a valid scientific observation.
The new inferences from Curiosity suggest a more benign and hospitable environment for life, but few working Mars investigators doubted that such existed in the past. Even if it did not, we have found in the past few decades that even extreme environments on the Earth can support certain types of microbial life. So the new results broaden and deepen our understanding of martian surface properties and processes, they do not revolutionize them. That’s just how science normally works. If some scientists tend to oversell their results, well, they’re only human.
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