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Life on Mars? : hearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, second session, September 12, 1996 online

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LIFE ON MARS?



Y 4. SCI 2:104/64

Life on flars? No. 64/ Hearing, 104...

BEFORE THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON SPACE AND AERONAUTICS

OF THE

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE
U.S. HOUSE OP REPRESENTATIVES

ONE HUNDRED FOURTH CONGRESS

SECOND SESSION



SEPTEMBER 12, 1996



[No. 64]



Printed for the use of the Committee on Science




Ci3 t93S



U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
35-100CC WASHINGTON : 1996

For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office
Superintendent of Documents, Congressional Sales Office, Washington, DC 20402
ISBN 0-16-053655-3



LIFE ON MARS?



Y 4. SCI 2:104/64

Life on flars? Ho. 64* Hearing* 104...

BEFORE THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON SPACE AND AERONAUTICS

OF THE

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

ONE HUNDRED FOURTH CONGRESS

SECOND SESSION



SEPTEMBER 12, 1996



[No. 64]



Printed for the use of the Committee on Science










U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
35-100CC WASHINGTON : 1996

For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Office
Superintendent of Documents, Congressional Sales Office, Washington, DC 20402
ISBN 0-16-053655-3



COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE



ROBERT S. WALKER,
F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, Jr.,

Wisconsin
SHERWOOD L. BOEHLERT, New York
HARRIS W. FAWELL, Illinois
CONSTANCE A. MORELLA, Maryland
CURT WELDON, Pennsylvania
DANA ROHRABACHER, California
STEVEN H. SCHIFF, New Mexico
JOE BARTON, Texas
KEN CALVERT, California
BILL BAKER, California
ROSCOE G. BARTLETT, Maryland
VERNON J. EHLERS, Michigan**
ZACH WAMP, Tennessee
DAVE WELDON, Florida
LINDSEY O. GRAHAM, South Carolina
MATT SALMON, Arizona
THOMAS M. DAVIS, Virginia
STEVE STOCKMAN, Texas
GIL GUTKNECHT, Minnesota
ANDREA H. SEASTRAND, California
TODD TIAHRT, Kansas
STEVE LARGENT, Oklahoma
VAN HILLEARY, Tennessee
BARBARA CUBIN, Wyoming
MARK ADAM FOLEY, Florida
SUE MYRICK, North Carolina



Pennsylvania, Chairman
GEORGE E. BROWN, Jr., California RMM*
HAROLD L. VOLKMER, Missouri
RALPH M. HALL, Texas
BART GORDON, Tennessee
JAMES A. TRAFICANT, Jr., Ohio
JOHN S. TANNER, Tennessee
TIM ROEMER, Indiana
ROBERT E. (Bud) CRAMER, Jr., Alabama
JAMES A. BARCIA, Michigan
PAUL McHALE, Pennsylvania
JANE HARMAN, California
EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON, Texas
DAVID MINGE, Minnesota
JOHN W. OLVER, Massachusetts
ALCEE L. HASTINGS, Florida
LYNN N. RIVERS, Michigan
KAREN MCCARTHY, Missouri
MIKE WARD, Kentucky
ZOE LOFGREN, California
LLOYD DOGGETT, Texas
MICHAEL F. DOYLE, Pennsylvania
SHEILA JACKSON LEE, Texas
WILLIAM P. LUTHER, Minnesota



David D. Clement, Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel

Barry Beringer, General Counsel

TlSH Schwartz, Chief Clerk and Administrator

ROBERT E. Palmer, Democratic Staff Director



SUBCOMMITTEE ON SPACE AND AERONAUTICS

F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, Jr., Wisconsin, Chairman



KEN CALVERT, California
DAVE WELDON, Florida
STEVE STOCKMAN, Texas
ANDREA H. SEASTRAND, California
TODD TIAHRT, Kansas
VAN HILLEARY, Tennessee
DANA ROHRABACHER, California
MATT SALMON, Arizona
THOMAS M. DAVIS, Virginia
STEVE LARGENT, Oklahoma
MARK ADAM FOLEY, Florida
(Vacancy)



RALPH M. HALL, Texas

JAMES A. TRAFICANT, Jr., Ohio

TIM ROEMER, Indiana

ROBERT E. (BUD) CRAMER, Jr., Alabama

JAMES A. BARCIA, Michigan

JANE HARMAN, California

SHEILA JACKSON LEE, Texas

ALCEE L. HASTINGS, Florida

MIKE WARD, Kentucky

WILLIAM P. LUTHER, Minnesota



*Ranking Minority Member
**Vice Chairman



(II)



CONTENTS



WITNESSES

Page

September 12, 1996:

Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, Jr., Associate Administrator for Space Science,
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 3

Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (Retired); Stafford, Burke and
Hecker 22

Dr. David S. McKay, Assistant for Exploration, Earth Science and Solar
System Exploration Division, Johnson Space Center, National Aero-
nautics and Space Administration 27

Dr. Richard N. Zare, Chair, National Science Board, Department of
Chemistry, Stanford University 39

APPENDDC

Written Testimony Submitted for the Record by:

The Planetary Society 60

The Space Frontier Foundation 67

The National Space Society 68

(III)



LIFE ON MARS?



THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 1996

U.S. House of Representatives,

Committee on Science,
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics,

Washington, DC.

The Subcommittee met at 10:00 a.m., in Room 2318 of the Ray-
burn House Office Building, the Honorable F. James Sensen-
brenner, Jr., Chairman of the Subcommittee, presiding.

Mr. SENSENBRENNER. Good morning, and welcome to this hear-
ing about the possibility of life on Mars.

The biggest movie this summer was "Independence Day," a story
about aliens invading the earth. I don't know if it's a coincidence,
but this year and next, England is celebrating the 100th anniver-
sary of the serial publication of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds,"
which was also about aliens invading the earth.

It wasn't that long ago that Orson Welles scared half the country
into thinking that H.G. Wells' novel had come true. Even less time
has passed since Steven Spielberg gave us a movie about friendly
aliens.

So, clearly, we have some sort of cultural fascination with life in
outer space.

I suspect that's why NASA's announcement last month made
headline news around the world. NASA believes that it has found
some evidence that life in its most primitive form can exist in other
worlds.

For some, this has cosmological implications. For others, the phil-
osophical meaning of this discovery could be more dramatic than
the impact Darwin had on the way humanity views itself. For still
others, the discovery is just another ho-hum announcement.

The nationally known paleontologist, Steven J. Gould, titled his
editorial in the New York Times, "Life on Mars — So What?"

As fascinating as these discussions might be, that's not why
we're here today. This is a subcommittee that deals with science
and public policy. Instead of debating the implications of the dis-
covery, we're going to discuss the science behind it. What steps did
the National Science Foundation and NASA take to make this dis-
covery? How do these steps relate to our national space exploration
efforts? What is NASA planning to study on Mars? Is it appropriate
to view this discovery as a reason to change public policy? And
what do we do now and where do we go from here?

Today, we have two of the principal scientists, Doctors Richard
Zare and David McKay, involved in developing the technology and
doing the research that has made this discovery possible.

(l)



They're going to tell us how they went about examining the me-
teorite, ALH-84001, and their confidence in their findings.

Dr. Wesley Huntress is NASA's associate administrator for space
science. He is going to review NASA's current plans for exploring
Mars and tell us a little bit about how the agency will follow up
on the discovery.

Finally, we have Lt. General Thomas Stafford. General Stafford
commanded several Gemini and Apollo space missions, including
the Apollo-Soyez link-up in 1975. General Stafford, who served his
country in the Air Force, NASA and the private sector, chaired the
synthesis group on American space exploration initiative in 1990
and 1991, which culminated in a roadmap for Mars exploration
with a report, "America at the Threshold."

General Stafford, it appears that we may once again be at a
threshold, so I look forward to hearing your comments and those
of the other witnesses at the table.

I am informed that there is a Democratic caucus, which is one
of the reasons why many more Democratic members are not here.
They're busy engaging in seditious activities.

[Laughter.]

But I do appreciate the gentleman from Texas, Mr. Hall, deciding
that Mars is more interesting than sedition, and I will now recog-
nize him for whatever comments he wants to make.

Mr. Hall. I thank the very fair and neutral Chairman.

[Laughter.]

My fellow Democrats asked me to announce that these hearings
will be continued under my chairmanship.

[Laugher.]

I do like the Chairman, admire him and respect him and we do
work well together, and I thank you, Mr. Chairman.

You're exactly right about life on Mars. It does sound like some
science fiction to a lot of people. Silly to some people, entertaining
to some. But it's dead serious to scientists and men and women of
science who pick over the rocks they bring back from the moon and
search through the files to bring us honesty and factual informa-
tion to give us gracious living and to do all those things.

So I think today is very important and will probably be very en-
tertaining because it is interesting. It is mysterious and it does
tickle the imagination of people who read and follow.

One of the results of our space program is that we now know a
lot more about Mars. I know it's a good and a very harsh environ-
ment. It's my belief that many millions of years ago, it may have
had a more hospitable climate, with running water, we're led to be-
lieve. Whether or not it was hospitable enough to allow life to flour-
ish on Mars in the past is to be continued.

Could some form of Martian life still exist today? I guess that's
to be continued?

I hope today's witnesses will be able to answer some of these
questions or give us some idea, lead or push us in some direction
where we can use your facts and our imagination and still whet our
appetite to continue to search and to continue to seek.

The discovery that will be discussed at today's hearing I think
is very exciting. I understand that scientists don't yet agree on
whether or not fossilized life has been found. That's to be contin-



ued. That will require more research. And I'm convinced that
whether or not Martian fossils have been found, the research that
we're going to get, the answers will prove valuable down the road,
just like our efforts to build Star Wars.

While we may or may not have ever succeeded, I think the Rus-
sians, as they headed toward the fall of the wall, didn't know
whether or not we had succeeded and I think there was a lot of
fallout and a lot of things that we gained on the way there.

I think it has been and is and will be and should be a worthwhile
project in the future.

So this is an exciting time for the U.S. space program. We're
making amazing scientific discoveries almost weekly. We're flying
the shuttle and doing important life sciences research. We're build-
ing the space station, which will be a national laboratory in space.
And we're carrying out other critical space activities.

Yet, I'm convinced that, ultimately, we'll get what we pay for.

We need to make sure, Mr. Chairman, that we aren't just patting
NASA's hard-working team on the back for their accomplishments,
giving them challenging new assignments and at the same time,
continuing to cut their budget.

The consequences may not be seen for a few years, but eventu-
ally a "penny- wise, pound-foolish" approach to the space program
is going to catch up with us.

NASA has been asked to make deep cuts to their budgets.
They're making deep cuts to the budget. I know of no other agency
that's made the cuts that they've made the last four years.

I just think NASA has risen to the challenge. And I think it's
time to hold the line against further cuts. I'm a cut man myself.
I never saw a cut I didn't like up here. But I think you have to
finally arrive at the point of where you're going to be reasonable
and say, look, we've handed these people the job. We've asked you
to cut. You know how to cut. We cut it with a club. You cut it with
a knife and make a proper incision for it. You've done that.

I think it's high time for us to gut up and support you. And I
thank you, and I yield back my time.

Mr. Sensenbrenner. I thank the gentleman from Texas. With-
out objection, other members' opening statements will be inserted
into the record at this point.

Hearing none, so ordered.

The first witness this morning will be Dr. Wesley T. Huntress,
Jr., Associate Administrator for Space Science at NASA.

I would ask each of the witnesses to summarize their remarks
in five to six minutes. Without objection, all of the written prepared
statements of each of the witnesses will be inserted into the record
at this point.

And Dr. Huntress, you may proceed.

STATEMENT OF DR. WESLEY T. HUNTRESS, JR. ASSOCIATE AD-
MINISTRATOR FOR SPACE SCIENCE NATIONAL AERO-
NAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION

Dr. Huntress. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and Members of the
Subcommittee.



This is indeed an exciting time, and I'm very glad to be here
today to discuss with you the recently announced research results
concerning the possibility for life on ancient Mars.

Now, the way I've come to look at this is about 13,000 years ago,
a messenger arrived on this planet in the form of a meteorite. It
landed in a very remote part of the planet, in Antarctica, and was
buried in ice. And for 13 million years, it's waited patiently for the
human species to get out of their caves and produce a civilized soci-
ety and to develop the capability to go to such an inhospitable place
and to find it.

It was found in 1984 as part of the annual Antarctic meteorite
tour sponsored by the National Science Foundation in its polar re-
search programs.

We found it. We brought it back. We opened it up. And if we're
reading the message correctly that it contains, it says, you are not
alone.

And if that's true, it's pretty profound.

We're pretty certain that this message comes from Mars. Now
Mars among all the planets occupies a real special place in the col-
lective human consciousness. It's been an object of awe and wonder
and speculation over the ages. Mr. Chairman, you mentioned some
of that in your opening remarks. It's inspired a lot of romance and
intrigue and fear about what lies beyond our own earth and in the
depths of space.

Scientifically, we've been interested in Mars because it's the most
likely place in our solar system where life may have once origi-
nated besides our own planet. And our robotic exploration of Mars
has shown us that there's clear evidence for warmer and wetter
episodes early in Mars' history.

And we believe that Mars, in its early history, 3-1/2 billion years
ago, was very similar to our own planet at that time. And over
those 3-1/2 billion years, the surface and climate conditions has
varied widely in both planets, but Mars' atmosphere has become
thin and dry and its surface is now relatively cold and barren, and
the water that once flowed on its surface has since frozen out and
disappeared.

Now after more than thirty years of planetary exploration
throughout the entire solar system, and after examining every
planet at close vantage point with our spacecraft, except for Pluto,
it's clearer than ever, more clear so, that Mars alone among all
those planets is the choice for eventual human exploration. And
only Mars among the other planets in the solar system has surface
conditions which are similar to the earth, making it the most suit-
able for human exploration.

And you'll hear more about that from our distinguished colleague
here, General Tom Stafford.

And so what's been our reaction at NASA to this announcement?
It's simply been one that this evidence is intriguing and our atti-
tude towards it has been one of careful fascination.

The implications are profound, but the evidence is not yet conclu-
sive. So much more work needs to be done in attempting to confirm
or refute the conclusions of this team. And while this evidence for
potential life on early Mars adds an emphasis to our current plan-



ning for the exploration of that planet, clearly the most important
first step is to focus more work on these meteorites.

And that could take several years.

In the meantime, we will continue to plan on how to get a sam-
ple from the surface of Mars back to earth for study with our
spacecraft.

We've been developing this strategy for the past several years for
a second era of Mars exploration. It's a systematic plan for the
step-by-step robotic exploration of Mars. Our overall strategy is one
that will be familiar to any of the explorers of the last century who
opened up the last remaining territories on our own planet.

The first step is to map the territory. You get your global maps
for the planet from which we can identify the most interesting
places. And then after conducting that aerial survey, so to speak,
you'll know what are the most interesting places and you send in
your scouts to survey the lay of the land. In essence, to conduct a
landed survey at those interesting places. And after scouting the
surface, the next step is to bring back samples.

Now, the current plan we have been working on before this dis-
covery was to see if we couldn't get a sample back from Mars by
the year 2008 with a launch in 2005. But achieving that goal was
going to be a challenge within our existing Mars Surveyor Program
resources.

Now, instead of the goal of just returning an interesting sample,
we're looking at a strategy as to what it would take to maximize
the possibility that that sample contained evidence of life on early
Mars.

Now that's something quite different. It's not that we just want
any sample. We would want a sample that has the right stuff in
it. And that requires a great deal more work in identifying the
right places.

And so we have asked our Mars science working group to con-
sider what that strategy would be, to focus our goals on Mars to
look for early life, and that group will complete its work in early
September. And we've asked the folks out at NASA's JPL to work
with that team to look at how one would implement that process.

One of the things that I think is important to understand is just
how the search for life on Mars fits into this new origins theme in
space science and the agency. That program is directed towards
asking some of the most fundamental questions we could ask —
where do galaxies, stars, planets and life come from? And second,
are there worlds like the earth around the nearby stars? And if so,
are they habitable or is life as we know it present there?

And the search for evidence on life on Mars is as much about a
search for origins as it is about Mars exploration.

If life began at the early stages on the second planet in this solar
system, then if two places, why not more than two?

On this planet, where there is water and where there is a source
of chemical energy, we find life, even in the most extreme environ-
ments.

So if life is so robust, why should we not find it on other planets
where those conditions exist? And if in more than one place in this
solar system, then why not in other solar systems? And we're be-
ginning to discover evidence of planets around other stars. And if



there are other planets like ours around those stars, then could life
have emerged there, also?

So it has major implications beyond just Mars.

And although to date, scientists have detected a small number of
planets around those stars, these findings suggest that it's likely
that many stars are orbited by planets.

Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, the conclusion by
the McKay team from their studies of ALH-84001 that early life ex-
isted on Mars remain yet to be proven. However, the implications
of the work are profound. And it represents a culmination of a se-
ries of fantastic discoveries this past year in space science ranging
from the origin of galaxies, new planets around stars, the possibil-
ity of subsurface oceans, and Europa.

We're entering an exciting new era of discovery and knowledge
about the place in which we live. And I say place in which we live.
Not just this planet, but our solar system and our universe, where
there is no more exciting question I think we can ask and pursue
than — what is the universe? How did it come to be? And are we
alone on this planet?

Thank you very much.

Mr. Sensenbrenner. Thank you.

General Stafford?

[The prepared statement of Dr. Huntress follows:]



Statement of

Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, Jr.

Associate Administrator for Space Science

NASA Headquarters

before the

Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

Committee on Science

U.S. House of Representatives

September 12, 1996



Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am glad to be here today to discuss with you the recently announced research
results concerning the possibility that life existed on ancient Mars.

Thirteen thousand years ago a messenger in the form of a meteorite arrived on
this planet. It arrived in a very remote part of this planet, in Antarctica, and was
buried in ice. For 13 millennia it waited patiendy for the human species to get
out of their caves, produce a civilized society and to develop the capability to find
it.

The forces of nature also played a role; the movement of ice and wind across
Antarctica helped to expose this messenger. It was found in 1984 as part of an
annual Antarctic meteorite collection activity sponsored by the National Science
Foundation, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution. We found it, we brought it
back, we opened it up, and if we are reading the message correctly it may say: "you
are not alone." If it is true, that is pretty profound.

Why are we studying Mars?

Mars, among all the planets, occupies a special place in the collective human
consciousness. Mars has been an object of awe, wonder and speculation over the
ages, and has inspired a lot of romance, intrigue and fear about what lies beyond
our own Earth in the depths of space. Inbred curiosity about Mars, along with
Earth's own Moon, has done more to fuel man's urge to know more, and to
explore space, than all the other planets of our solar system. Mars has been the
subject of an enormous amount of speculation, science-fiction, and scientific
study — and that has not been changed by our newer views of the solar system.



Mars is the most likely place where life may have once originated in the solar
system besides on our own planet Earth. While Mars may not presently harbor
life— although there still remains an outside chance that it does— our robotic
exploration of the planet clearly shows that there were warmer and wetter
episodes in the past history of Mars in which life may have arisen. We now
believe that the conditions on Mars early in its geological history were very
similar to those on the early Earth, when life first arose here. Over the past 4.5
billion years, surface and climate conditions have varied widely both on Earth
and Mars, but Mars' atmosphere has become thin and dry; its surface cold and
barren. The water that once flowed on the surface of Mars has since frozen out at
the poles and disappeared below the surface in the form of permafrost. Geological
processes have buried Mars' inventory of water and its early atmosphere. Yet
there may remain exposed the fossil remnants of early life on Mars.

We know that during the time that life began on Earth (at least 3.5 billion years
ago), Mars also had water flowing across its surface. But what we don't know is
how far along the path of evolution Mars progressed. Did complex chemistry
progress to life? Recent evidence from what we believe to be a Martian meteorite
round in Antarctica (called ALH84001) suggests that early Mars might have had
life. This finding, however, remains controversial and will only be resolved with
further studies of ancient Mars. Fortunately, there is an expanse of ancient
terrain on Mars, which promises ample samples for studying the early history of
that planet. In exploring Mars, we may find evidence of liquid water, of early
chemical evolution, or even of life. In fact, it may be the samples we gather from
Mars that will contain the best evidence of life's beginning in our solar system.

After more than 30 years of planetary exploration throughout the entire solar
system, after examining every planet at close vantage point except Pluto for the
potential for future exploration, it is more clear than ever that Mars alone among
the other planets is the choice for possible human exploration. Only Mars among
the other planets in the solar system has surface conditions most similar to that of
Earth; making it the most suitable for human exploration.

Reaction to the Recent Announcement

NASA's reaction to this announcement is one of careful fascination. The
implications are profound, but the inferences are not conclusive. Much more
work needs to be done in attempting to confirm, or refute, the conclusions of this
team of researchers. While the potential for life on early Mars adds an additional
emphasis to our current planning for scientific exploration of Mars, clearly the
most important first step is to focus more work on the Martian meteorites.


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Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on ScienLife on Mars? : hearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, second session, September 12, 1996 → online text (page 1 of 9)