Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Passion of The Mars Debate

Six years ago, I shared a suite of offices with the former NASA Manager for the Viking Mars probes, the late Dr. Richard S. Young. We had many hours of conversations about Mars and the Viking experiments. Dr. Young told me at the time that the thing they all most feared about the Viking mission was that the experiments onboard to detect life would send back ambiguous results that they could not clearly understand and not really tell them anything definitive. And that is exactly what happened. One experiment in particular, the Labeled Release experiment sent back results that could indicate the presence of living organisms in the Martian soil. But most scientists after carefully reviewing the data said the results were due to soil chemistry and nothing more.

But just to make life really exciting, the scientist in charge of that experiment disagreed. In fact, he has said that the experiment, in fact, detected life and faithfully reported it back to earth just as the instrument was designed to do! Unfortunately, his analysis is in the minority view and thus, in 2001, a story in CNN labels Dr. Gilbert Levin a “maverick scientist”.

But the controversy continues unabated with the current batch of probes, especially the two plucky, still functioning Mars rovers, far over their warranty. One photo shows a brightened streaking in the tracks of the rovers that Ralph reported here last week may have been due to the frosty remnants of water ice just below the surface condensing into frost on the surface after the weight of the water squished it out. But not so fast – that isn’t at all the official NASA story, as reported here, it is the result of subsurface salt deposits kicked up by the rover’s tracks.

Since everyone else on this planet gets an opinion on this, I get one too. First, let me say that labeling Dr. Levin (a brilliant scientist, by the way) a “maverick” is foul play and an unfortunate use of words. Dr. Levin is highly respected in the scientific community, was highly respected by Dr. Young and has been given a raw deal. Second, as Dr. Young so carefully pointed out, the results are, at best, ambiguous. That has a meaning. It means that NO ONE REALLY KNOWS, period, end of story! There is just not enough data to make a decision. So then, if no one really knows, then everyone needs to back off and hear everyone else out and stop the name calling. After all, is CNN a “maverick news network” just because Fox News has run away with their audience and they now hold the minority position? No – it means in America we all get to hear everyone else’s voice and make up our own minds without prejudice for some one else's opinion. Third, since the data is ambiguous on all counts, I believe there in only one way to solve the conundrum. Send astronauts to find out. That will settle this issue once and for all for everyone!

Even when astronauts get there, Mars will probably not release all its secrets easily, as I describe in my book, ABYSS OF ELYSIUM - check it out!

Shown above is Levin and the Viking onboard life detection biology suite.