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Re: MARTIAN PALEOBIOLOGISTS - NYET!



In a message dated 96-08-17 11:47:42 EDT, GSPaul wrote:

>Of course, the insane expense of actually sending hairless apes to Mars will
>probably forclose this option anyway. So let us send the (properly
sterilized
>of course) robopaleobiologists! 

Hopefully this isn't too far away from dinosaurs - I submit it to add a
little info and perspective to the Mars bugs thread.

The next two robot probes to Mars are NOT sterilized. Several Soviet probes
of the past also were not sterilized. When I raised this issue with some NASA
sample analysis people immediately after the public announcement that
possible dead martian life had been found, I was told that sterilizing these
probes was not an option, because it would double their cost.

I've followed the discussions on this listserver with great interest. Until
recently most of my writing work was in spaceflight and astronomy. I was a
senior technical writer for NASA in Houston until last year, and before that
I worked in planetariums. But now I'm freelancing in Austin (the geology's
better) and diversifying to cover Earth science, including paleontology.
Imagine my surprise, then, when suddenly I'm confronted by discussions of
possible evidence of dead martian life on EVERY listserver to which I
subscribe! Planetariums, space cooperation, dinosaurs - everyone's nattering
on about it, placing their own spin on it.

Chris McKay, NASA Ames Research Center, which is outside San Francisco, told
me that we might learn that Mars and Earth are biologically linked. MIGHT -
like most of the scientists, he's cautious about the find. We might learn
that Earth's biosphere is a LOT bigger than we are used to thinking. It might
make more sense to speak of our solar system's biosphere. Space people are
used to thinking of Earth as just one rock in space among many, you see.

I was in the conference room in Bldg 31 at NASA Johnson Space Center in
Houston a couple of weeks ago when the Press Conference on the possible dead
martian life was aired. Bldg 31 is where the martian meteorite causing all
the furor was kept and where much of the analysis was done. I was surrounded
by people who had either worked on the meteorite at some stage or who
suppored people working on the meteorite. The attitude was one of hopeful
skepticism, along with an undercurrent of cynical (but understandable) "how
will this affect our work/jobs?" For one thing, they've been pulling for a
Mars Sample Return mission ASAP, and NASA boss Dan Goldin said we should
accelerate that in his speech. That got a little cheer. I think most of them
saw this as a media circus. Which of course it is. The day before the
conference the news room at NASA Johnson was crazy. Officially NASA had a lid
on the news, which was a GREAT way of 1) encouraging unwarranted speculation,
and 2) building suspense for the official announcement. (I doubt that they
planned that, though - just ham-handed knee-jerk efforts at info control.) I
contributed to the chaotic atmosphere, of course. :-)

The Surveyor III probe parts returned to Earth by Apollo 12 astronauts in
November 1969, after 2 yrs on the moon, were contaminated after reaching
Earth, according to space writer Jim Oberg, who intervewed Lunar Receiving
Lab personnel. They doubted that the e. coli bacteria found on the parts had
ever been to the moon.

Finally - many in the space community are seeing this as a welcome,
attention-grabbing kickoff for the series of more than ten Mars probes
scheduled for the next several years. The plan is to launch small, low-cost
($150 million) probes to Mars at each launch opportunity (about every two
years). Most will simply establish short-lived (1 mo to 1 year) research
stations on the surface or in orbit. None will be sterilized. The first two,
Mars Global Surveyor (an orbiter) and Mars Pathfinder (a lander with a tiny
rover) are due to launch in November and December, respectively. The MGS
orbiter arrived at Kennedy Space Center for final pre-launch preparations
last week. 

David S. F. Portree
Freelance writer focused on discovery
NASA Contract Author
Austin TX USA