Viewpoint: Millennial Fever, Extremophiles, NASA, Astroenvironmentalism, and Planetary Protection

By Miller, Ryder W. | Electronic Green Journal, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Viewpoint: Millennial Fever, Extremophiles, NASA, Astroenvironmentalism, and Planetary Protection


Miller, Ryder W., Electronic Green Journal


At the turn of the 21 st century, especially for those involved with The Mars Society or those who followed developments in space exploration, there was a belief that we could send people to Mars sometime soon. At the millennium, just after the 30 th anniversary of the moon landing, there were many in the astronomical community who were proposing Mars as the next manned space mission. Robert Zubrin, the president of The Mars Society, was making the argument that we could presently send people to Mars more easily than we could send people to the moon 30 years earlier. To the benefit of the possible extraterrestrial life in the solar system, history decided for a number of reasons that we were not ready to send people to Mars or go to Jupiter's moon Europa yet.

During the 2000 election campaign, concerned parties in the astronomical community were examining the political positions of Al Gore and George W. Bush closely. There was also the interest at the Mars Society in terraforming Mars: altering the Martian environment to produce an atmosphere so Earth life could survive there. Kim Stanley Robinson in his 1990's award winning science fiction tetralogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and The Martians, envisioned a future where International Space Law was ignored and most of the planet Mars is changed to support human life before a thorough search for extremophiles was conducted. Robinson envisioned preservationists on Mars, but they lose the major battles in his awardwinning scenario. His was no terraforming series about some far off planet; it was a disturbing thought experiment about our closest neighbor in space in the near future. Pamela Sargent had also recently written a famous science fiction series where Venus is terraformed. Maybe it was realistic to echo a lack of concern about preservation and our search for life elsewhere. Robert Zubrin and others dream of terraforming Mars as illustrated in a recent release of a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research (Marinova, et al., 2005) which postulates that the injection of "synthetic 'super' greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere could raise the planet's temperature enough to melt its polar caps and create conditions suitable for sustaining biological life." What about the search for extraterrestrial life on Mars first? The discovery of extraterrestrial life, even if only microscopic, could teach us things that we cannot fully predict. What about appreciating Mars as it is before we decide to drastically change it?

Recent developments in the exploration of space have included mathematical proof of other planets, greater concern about potential asteroid collisions, a trip to Saturn and its moon Titan, the new belief that there could be oceans under the icy surfaces of some of the moons of Jupiter, string theory, dark energy and matter, the new Rose Center in New York City, the winning of the X prize, and the emergence of astrobiology and planetary protection. But astronomers have yet to find life on other planets. Discovery of extraterrestrial life could possibly challenge the tenants of biology. Maybe life elsewhere evolved due to cooperation rather than competition? On Earth, there was also the recent discovery of extremophiles, resilient life forms that live in habitats that we had once considered inhospitable. The discovery of extremophiles has revolutionized the field of exobiology, now called astrobiology.

Thinking about astronomical developments at the turn of the century, it was difficult to separate what "could be" from what "may be." Decisions about space exploration were being made that could drastically affect the future of humanity. Almost as if stepping out of a science fiction book, NASA has a Planetary Protection Officer who focuses on forward and backward contamination resulting from space exploration. The fear of backwards contamination from possible life found on Mars creating havoc here on Earth is one of the reasons that a Mars sample return missions has not yet been planned. …

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