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Interview: NASA's Huntress on Mars ... and beyond

Huntress 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 elsewhere.

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 Europa.

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 now.

Slade: Certainly not carbon-based life.

Huntress: Because any carbon compound would break down at those temperatures.

Slade: So that leaves Mars, which is sort of frozen in place.

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 changes.

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 Mars.

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.

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