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Exobiology and the Exploration of Space

The launch of the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, by the Soviet Union on October 4th 1957 prompted Joshua Lederberg, a former Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Melbourne, to consider the biological implications of space exploration. He publicly warned against the dangers of contamination of the moon and other planets from spacecraft carrying bacteria from Earth and his efforts secured a place for biology in the U. S. space program.

In December of 1958 Lederberg was joined by Wolf Vishniac and other exobiologists and formed a scientific discussion panel on extraterrestrial life. Their aim was to determine what kind of life might exist on other planets. 

They considered that extra-terrestrial life may have the same chemistry and the same appearance as life on Earth. Perhaps this was due to common origins they thought, or maybe life just always evolved the same way. They considered the possibility that life may have the same basic chemistry but different appearances. Perhaps different environments would affect the course of evolution. They considered that life on other planets may have different chemistry. Perhaps the building blocks of life would be silicon based rather than carbon based. They also considered that life on other planets may be very primitive. Life discovered on other planets may not be more evolved than the ancient microbial ancestors of life on Earth.

In 1959, the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) gave its first grant to Wolf Vishniac, a microbiologist from Yale University. He was commissioned to develop “a prototype instrument for the detection of microorganisms on other planets”. Then, in 1960, NASA tasked the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a government funded research and development center in La Cañada Flintridge, California, with planning for a mission to land a capsule on Mars and search for existing life.

The Scientists needed to figure out how they would remotely detect life on the red planet. In the 1950’s and the early 1960’s the exobiologists, like numerous astronomers before them, considered that Mars may have higher forms of life such as vegetation. It could be possible to detect forms of life such as this if they could be seen in suitably resolved video and photographic images. However, they considered that their most realistic chance of successfully detecting extraterrestrial life on the planet Mars was to search for microbes in the soil. Searching for higher forms of life such as plants, while possibly existing on the surface of Mars, would leave the experiment’s success down to luck. If the Earth was anything to go by, higher forms of life would not be expected to be ubiquitous on Mars. It was assumed that microbial life would be widespread like it is on planet Earth and thus it would provide a more likely chance of success should life exist on the surface of Mars.

The Brookings Institute Final Report

On December 15th, 1960, the New York Times ran a story: “Mankind Is Warned to Prepare For Discovery of Life in Space”. The piece continued with the evocative subheading “Brookings Institution Report Says Earth’s Civilization Might Topple if Faced by a Race of Superior Beings.” The Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. based think tank, had been commissioned to review the sociological, political and economic impact of the forthcoming space program including the envisioned future of NASA as it began its exploration of space. The implications of these prospective space activities by NASA on the human race didn’t look good if the reports were anything to go by.

In the section discussing attitudes and values of the general public the report stated:

“[-42S] 4 – Though intelligent or semi-intelligent life conceivably exists elsewhere in our solar system, if intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered in the next twenty years, it will very probably be by radio telescope from other solar systems. Evidence of its existence may be found in artifacts left on the moon or other planets.

“The consequences for attitudes and values are unpredictable, but would vary profoundly in different cultures and between groups within complex societies; a crucial factor would be the nature of the communication between us and the other beings.

“Whether or not earth would be inspired into an all-out space effort by such a discovery is moot: societies sure of their own place in the universe have disintegrated when confronted by a superior society, and others have survived even though changed. Clearly, the better we can come to understand the factors involved in responding to such crises the better prepared we may be.”

Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs, The Brookings Institute, 1960

It seemed that the bigwigs at Washington D.C.’s prestigious Think Tank didn’t think the people could handle a revelation of this magnitude. Its recommendations suggested that the best course of action NASA (or some other agency) could take was to plan for programs to better understand societal responses to such disclosures and create programs of preparedness in anticipation of them.

A question we could ask here is this: have we seen either of these kinds of programs? Have NASA or some other agency studied for and implemented a preparedness program of some kind?

Film director Stanley Kubrick is reported to have cited the Brookings Institute study to reports when discussing his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The suggestion that officials would cover up such a discovery and the tone of the reasoning is mirrored in the words of fictional character Dr Heywood Floyd in the movie as he briefs his colleagues on his arrival at the Moon Base where he is to study the recent discovery they have made:

“I’m sure you’re aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation. If the facts were to be prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning”

Dr. Heywood Floyd briefing fellow scientists about the discovery of an alien artefact on the Moon; 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM 1968

However, the outward position that NASA presented is that it would disclose to the public important discoveries made during their coming robotic exploration of space. We will look at this later when we discuss the work of Stanley McDaniel validating the work of the independent Mars Investigation Team.

NASA’s Mariner Missions

So, it was with this as background that the first robotic spacecraft, Mariner 4, was to become the first probe to image Mars from close quarters.

The Mariner 4 mission in 1964 saw the first successful flyby of the planet Mars during which it transmitted a small amount of video images back to Earth. Although the expectations of discovery of actual evidence for life on the planet were low to nil, given the low resolution of the camera on board, the mission scientists expectations of discovering Mars to be an Earth like planet were dashed as Mariner 4 returned data, and the black and white images (hand drawn from the data returned in the first instance) returned showed a heavily cratered terrain more closely resembling the moon.

This had been unexpected by the scientists at NASA at the time. While only a tiny region of Mars was imaged by Mariner 4 on its journey past Mars and on to the other planets in the solar system, this picture of Mars would turn out to be atypical of the red planet. By chance Mariner 4 had images of a much older surface on Mars than is more commonly found. At that time, with much more cratering seen in the images than we now know are present in other regions, it showed Mars to be geologically dead.

Where the geological processes of the earth recycle the terrain leaving the earth with relatively few meteor impact craters, Mars looked positively dead like the moon. The camera resolution was very not expected to have resolution enough to look for the signs of even higher life such as suspected vegetation. The moon-like appearance meant that scientists’ hopes of finding plant life and certainly hopes of finding intelligent martians rapidly began to fade.

Mariner 6 and 7 were also both flyby missions. The two spacecraft flew over the equatorial and south polar regions, analysing the Martian atmosphere and surface with remote sensors as well as recording and relaying hundreds of images taken with higher resolution cameras than were used on Mariner 4. Images taken as the spacecraft approached Mars showed no criss-crossing dark features on the surface of the planet that Schiaparelli had referred to as canali and Lowell had believed were artificial canals.   

In 1971 Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Mars enabling long term observations to be made. Fortunately so, for as Mariner 9 arrived at Mars a dust storm was found to be enveloping the entire planet. The dust storm lasted for a month, and as the dust began to clear, Mariner 9 began revealing a very different planet than had been expected from data returns from the earlier Mariner missions.

As the dust diminished, the tops of three gigantic volcanoes were revealed in a line piercing through the clouds. They had been completely missed in the previous mission due to the mission’s camera coverage being limited to a small linear path around the planet. It has missed these spectacular features and a fourth, even more massive volcano that covered an area of 300,000 km2. They were named Olympus Mons. Scientists had expected a mountainous feature to be present in this region due to albedo (surface reflectivity) data indicating a white bright feature. However, the scale of this shield volcano, the largest one in our solar system, was extraordinary.

The mission revealed apparent evidence of water in the form of a massive canyon over 4,000 kilometers long, 200 kilometers wide and up to 7 kilometers deep in places. They named Valles Marineris after the spacecraft that discovered it. They also saw ancient riverbeds carved out by water long forgotten on a seemingly dry planet. 

It was a very different world to the one envisaged at the turn of the 20th century. But was it a life bearing planet?

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