Interview: NASA's Huntress on Mars ... and beyond
August 12, 1996
Web posted at: 11:10 p.m. EDT
In the glow of what some say could be NASA's greatest
scientific discovery, CNN contributing reporter Jim Slade
interviewed the agency's associate administrator, Wesley T.
Huntress, Jr. about NASA's next step.
Slade: Since the moon landings, NASA has been accused of not
having a real goal. Now?
Huntress: I believe we do. In fact, I believe we've always
had one. We just probably didn't say it quite very well.
Certainly, the space enterprise of NASA is about exploring
our universe either with telescopes or physically,
looking for planets, other worlds, evidence of life
Slade: Now you may have a direct focus, at least for a large
part of your agency, and that's Mars.
Huntress: I think so. But I think it would be a mistake to
focus exclusively on Mars. Because, in fact, if this is
true, that life evolved or began at least at the early stages
on a second planet in our solar system, then what I think
it says is: if in two places in our solar system, why not
more than just two. Any place you have water and a source of
chemical energy, we find life on this planet. And so why not
on others. There are many other places in the solar system
where there was early in its history liquid water and sources
of chemical energy. And if in more than one place on this
planet and in the solar system, why not other solar systems?
We're beginning to discover evidence of planets around other
stars, and if there are other planets like ours, Mars and
elsewhere, then why not there also?
Slade: The only two others I can think of would be Venus and
Venus and Europa
Huntress: I think Europa comes to mind. And so we're very
anxiously awaiting the data from Galileo. We'll have data
next week, in fact. It won't be closeup, but we'll have some
more from Europa.
Venus may have developed some early life but like Mars, it
went a totally different direction from the Earth and got
incredibly hot. So I don't see any chance of life on Venus
Slade: Certainly not carbon-based life.
Huntress: Because any carbon compound would break down at
Slade: So that leaves Mars, which is sort of frozen in
Huntress: Yes. And in fact, we shouldn't give up the idea
if in fact we've convinced ourselves that life started on
that planet, that it still might not exist in sheltered
places on that planet. And again, I like to refer to the
evidence we found on our own planet for life in very unlikely
places where we didn't suspect it, such as several miles
below the surface of the earth in the state of Washington, in
rocks that happened to have liquid water and a source of
chemical energy available. I suspect that there are
sheltered places on Mars on the polar caps, in the polar
caps, under the surface somewhere there's permafrost, sources
of perhaps liquid water we haven't yet discovered.
Slade: So what's the plan of March? Exploration of Mars has
been planned for many years, in fact it started before the
landing on the Moon. There's been an international
organization planning the scientific approach to Mars for
years . Ten explorer spacecraft are budgeted to go
, the space station's coming. It all seems serendipitous.
Mariner 4 launched the Mars thing
Huntress: You're right. We began back in 1964 and the
first era of the exploration of Mars by spacecraft began with
Mariner 4 then. And it ended with the Viking landers in
1976. So it's taken us a while to get back and I think we're
now ready to open the second era of Mars exploration.
The program I'm referring to is the Mars Surveyor. The first
two launches are this year, an orbiter and a lander. The
purpose of the orbiter is to begin mapping the planet in
detail with one of the objectives to be to look for places on
the planet where we should go to look for the best evidence
of early or even extinct life, on the planet.
The Rover itself will carry the first chemical instrument to
look at the composition of rocks. We did not do that on
Viking, we just examined the soil. In 1998, the plan is
again an orbiter to complete the process of global mapping.
The lander will go to the south pole to exam the ancient
crust, like this ancient rock we just had from Mars and to
look at places that have the volatiles like water, ice and
frost that might be useful for harboring life. But what
hasn't been decided yet is what's to be done after 1998 and,
even without this result, we have been focusing on a plan by
which we get a sample back from Mars by the year 2005. That
was a challenge and I think this recent finding just adds a
great deal of impetus to that work. We're going to focus
heavily on how to get the "right stuff" back from Mars.
Slade: You think you might accelerate that?
Huntress: That's quite possible. The first step is to get
confirmation of what we have here. That could take a year or
so. In the meantime, we'll proceed in parallel on the Mars
Surveyor program in planning on how to get a sample back.
If we get a consensus that this really does look like life on
Mars, I suspect we will definitely accelerate it some way.
Slade: Do you have the technology?
We have the technology right now
Huntress: Oh, certainly. I mean that's not the concern. We
know how to get a sample back off the surface. I think the
question is how do we approach this idea systematically so we
find the right area to look, we put on the surface of Mars
the right instruments to find the right rocks to bring back
and use as much innovation as we can to do it as quickly as
we can and as cheaply as we can.
Slade: So the precursor is to go find the right spot, then
the sampler lands and brings it back. Two stages?
Huntress: Yes. First map the whole planet, find the right
place, go to those places, decide which is the right one,
send the device to bring the rock back and have it go pick
the right rock out and come home with it.
Slade: And after that, more approaches to talk about?
Huntress: Exactly, and that's probably the beginning of the
third era of Mars exploration.
Slade: What about looking for water on the planet? Isn't
that the key?
Huntress: That's very difficult, in fact. Because of the
need to sense below rock and soil of unknown depth. We
really suspect there's permafrost on Mars from some of the
surface features at high latitudes where the craters look
like they've been softened by impacts in a more muddy, soft
type of terrain. We see evidence of catastrophic slumping
and flooding from those areas that look like the permafrost
had melted due to some kind of event and then burst out and
flooded a whole area. So we see plenty of indirect evidence
for water that may be ice underneath the surface.
Springtime on Mars?
Slade: Does Mars get a spring thaw?
Huntress: Hard to know. We don't know what causes these
catastrophic flooding events. It could be impact, it could
be motions of the mantle in the interior somehow, but on the
surface, we don't see a lot of evidence for any kind of major
Slade: Do you buy the theory of an aquifer (or large deposits
of water) under the permafrost?
Huntress: Quite possible. Certainly can't discount that.
Slade: Where does the space station fit?
Huntress: Right now, I think it's main goal has been as a
research base to understand how humans can work and live in
space with the ultimate idea that humans would expand their
exploration of space beyond earth orbit. We need that
experience for how humans are going live and work for long
periods of time in zero gravity.
The idea always had been that the space station would be a
way-station or a jumping off point, if you will, for Mars.
This was one of the key ideas originally in the design of the
space station and it may yet well be.
Research on the ground
Slade: Let's turn to research on the ground. Now that
you've got this one very exciting element (possible life on
Mars), what do you do?
The key is to do the work that is necessary to get a
scientific consensus on whether or not we really have in
fact, evidence of biological activity early in the history of
And that means a wider participation by the science community
to investigate this and other Martian meteorite samples and
to make these available to a wider cross section of the
science community, get other kinds of techniques applied and
I certainly expect I'm going to get a wad of proposals to do
that very, very soon.
Everything comes together
Slade: Could you have done this thing five years ago? It
seems serendipitous, like everything is just coming together
at this point. The technology's ready, the agency's ready,
and here comes the data on Mars.
Huntress: The way I look at this is a messenger arrived on
this planet 13,000 years ago, and it arrived in a very, very
remote part of this planet, Antarctica, and was buried in ice
and stayed there for 13,000 years, waiting for the human
species to get out of caves, develop civilization and the
capability to go look for it.
The movement of ice down there, and the movement of wind
exposed it. We found it in 1984, we brought it back, we
opened it up, we're reading the
message and, if we're reading it right, it says: "you're not
alone." That's pretty profound.
Slade: In 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan told me this would be
a fabulous decade.
Huntress: He's a good prophet. This past year has been
amazing for me. I sit here and watch the spacecraft
we've got exploring the universe and the discovery rate is
ASTOUNDING. We've got discoveries from the Hubble Space
Telescope that are cued up and waiting to get up. We've got
Galileo at Jupiter. The productivity is very high and the
public is responding enormously. I think they're very
interested in what we're finding out there.
© 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.