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.