[Here at the Flash, we assume that most of our readers are already well informed on the August 7, 1996 NASA announcement concerning evidence of possible ancient life on Mars. Thus, although even mainstream journalists seem to understand that this story is VERY IMPORTANT, we will treat it fairly briefly in this issue of the Flash. The following text was derived in part from an August 8 article in the Orlando Sentinel, written by Seth Borenstein, with additional information from NASA press releases and other ISCNI sources.]
With evidence strongly hinting that some kind of life once existed on Mars, NASA is looking at accelerating its planned series of unmanned Martian probes.
Some experts also called on NASA to solidify vague plans to put astronauts on the planet, something that so far has been the stuff of NASA speeches and science fiction. "This will probably heat up Mars and make it a more interesting place" to explore, said Norm Haynes, director of Mars exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
And it also could mean a boost to NASA's exploration and spending plans, experts say. NASA has been spending about $100 million a year on Mars probes and research.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin would not give specifics on any changes to NASA's Mars plans but said the agency is committed to learning more about possible life on the planet. "NASA will be ready to take the next step," Goldin said in the August 7 news conference. "If we have to dig down into the depths of Mars, we will do it. If we need people to perform these functions, we will use them."
In a separate news conference the same day on the south lawn of the White House, President Clinton hailed the new Mars evidence as a vindication of America's space program and called for a November summit with scientists, national leaders and international space experts to plan a more comprehensive strategy for exploring Mars and beyond.
Scientists disagreed on whether the new Mars evidence actually points to life on the planet. All sides of the argument generally agree they need to know more. Yet, scientists, journalists and many ordinary citizens seemed to recognize the new findings as a potential watershed in history.
An editorial in the New York Times typified the general response to NASA's announcement. It read, in part: "The evidence is hardly conclusive. This could still turn out to be a colossally wrong interpretation -- or a wild propaganda salvo fired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at a time when all Federal agencies are desperately seeking to justify their budgets... But we are reluctant to treat this dramatic claim frivolously. If the finding is confirmed by stronger evidence, it will be one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries ever made, even bigger than the first clumsy steps by mankind on the moon. When historians of the future look back at our age, a transforming event of our time might be the discovery that life on Earth is not unique but part of a broader canvas."
Meanwhile, as scientists launch an intense study of the evidence, the first two in an ongoing series of unmanned Mars probes are scheduled to launch this year from Cape Canaveral.
In November, NASA intends to send a $155 million probe called Mars Global Surveyor to the Red Planet. Global Surveyor will reach Mars in September 1997, circle the planet repeatedly and map its surface and climate.
It is this spacecraft that is equipped to rephotograph the controversial "face" and "pyramid" landforms in the Cydonia region of Mars that some researchers believe must have been constructed by intelligent beings. During the August 7 news conference, in response to a question from a representative of Operation Right to Know, Daniel Goldin said that Mars Global Surveyor would rephotographed the Cydonia region at a higher level of resolution than the existing photos from the 1976 Viking mission, although he stressed that Cydonia was not a current mission priority.
In December, NASA will launch its $173 million Mars Pathfinder probe. In July 1997 Pathfinder will parachute to the Martian surface and then release a crawling robot the size of a child's wagon on the planet's surface to test rocks. This spacecraft does not carry the kind of sophisticated equipment that would be necessary to positively prove the existence of life on Mars, but it can provide further indications of that possibility.
Two robotic Mars missions are in the works for 1998, Haynes said. Up to six more probes are on the drawing boards, to be launched in pairs every 25 months, he said. Goldin raised the possibility of even more.
Another key Mars mission is a probe that would gather Martian rocks and soil and bring them back to Earth for tests, Greeley said. That mission was tentatively scheduled for about 2005, but Goldin said it may be launched earlier because of the meteorite findings.
But experts are talking about sending more than just robots to Mars because people are probably needed to dig deeper into the planet's surface where evidence of life would most likely exist.
Even though he has long proposed an international manned flight to Mars in 2016, when Earth and Mars are closest, Goldin wants a careful study on what to do next. "Our missions should be driven by scientific potential and the potential for economic opportunity and not be a feel-good mission to get to Mars," Goldin said.
Others don't want to stop and study. "What makes sense for us to do is for us to start planning for a manned mission to Mars," said U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Palm Bay, vice chairman of the House space subcommittee.
John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank, said NASA has to get moving on sending people to Mars. "Can we afford not to? The question of whether we are alone or whether there are other civilizations is one of the most important questions."
Original file name: .CNI - Mars.Hot Destination
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