SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

The pictures from Mars are awesome, but what do they prove?

By Kate Rix

Published July 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

for the past week, the television-watching world has been treated to painfully detailed coverage of the Martian surface. Looking more like pictures of a rocky mesa in Arizona or New Mexico, digital images of the ancient flood plain called Ares Vallis have dominated the news, partly as a travelogue for those of us unlikely to ever vacation on the Red Planet. But the Pathfinder mission is also the climactic chapter in a astronomical saga.

Last July an announcement that a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica might contain fossilized signs of life reinvigorated one of the oldest questions of all: Are we alone in the universe? It also sent the science community into a kind of front-page pissing contest, squabbling over the evidence and its implications.

Astronomer Donald Goldsmith has chronicled the discovery of the meteorite and the ferocious debate that ensued in "The Hunt For Life On Mars" (Dutton). Goldsmith is also the author of more than a dozen books, including the companion volume to the PBS series "The Astronomers."

Salon spoke with Goldsmith at him home in Berkeley.

What's the most important thing that Pathfinder has shed light on so far?

The biggest news is that a rock scientists examined is a volcano-formed rock. It verified what nobody really doubted, that there were volcanos on Mars. Also, there's evidence of floods, which certainly confirms that a long time ago there was water on Mars. That information is on Mars waiting for us to check out. But of course if we're going to check it out we're going to need a spacecraft a whole lot better than this one. NASA hopes by the year 2005 to have a sample return craft that can go and bring something back.

Science writer Timothy Ferris has said the Pathfinder mission is a big waste of money -- that we should be concentrating on other, terrestrial, projects.

I disagree with that sentiment. I think it's very important to explore and discover our roots -- to find out from Mars where we came from. It's not going to make us rich but it will make us, I think, emotionally much happier. Of course we need to balance that and explore Earth also. But considering that this costs about 10 percent of what Viking cost in 1976 dollars, we're doing very well.

Much has been made about how this mission is "faster and cheaper" than others.

At about $250 million, the whole Pathfinder mission costs about the same as a really expensive movie -- about $1 per American citizen. Furthermore, we've got this surveyor craft approaching and going into orbit around the planet later on this year, and it'll take these incredibly detailed pictures of the planet, better than we've ever seen before.

We've seen pictures of technicians hugging each other at mission control in Pasadena. But over the past year scientists have been slinging mud at each other over the Martian meteorite found last July. Has the Pathfinder mission put all of that acrimony on hold?

Yes, that's quite literally on the shelf. It took the committee in charge of the meteorite a long time to decide whether to allocate more samples to scientists for study. Now they have decided to go ahead and allocate about a dozen samples, so slowly and painstakingly, we can go forward with further analysis.

Why has the disagreement been so bitter?

The more important the issue is, the more emotional it will be. And life on Mars, or life anywhere in the universe, is about as important as it gets. Added to that is the fact that no one knows precisely how much evidence should exist before you talk seriously about it. The anti-rock people are angry because they don't understand why so little evidence, as they see it, is being taken so seriously. Furthermore, some of the experts probably can't avoid a certain personal feeling of "if I didn't discover it than it probably isn't true."

Pathfinder won't be returning with any rock
samples, but maybe in 10 years we'll get some rocks back from another mission. Someday we'll be able to investigate right there on Mars.

Kate Rix


Related Topics ------------------------------------------