Speaking of the moon and beyond, both were in the news again last week as the 30th anniversary of the last Apollo mission converged with the latest speculations about life — or otherwise — on Mars.
First came former Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan, who, as the last man to stand on the moon, understandably rejects the notion that the lunar landings represented a dead end. “I came back from the mission,” he said, “and the press continued to ask me, ‘How does it feel to be the tail of the dog, the last one over the fence?’ I said, ‘Apollo 17 is not the end; it’s the beginning of a whole new era. . . . We’ll be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.’ “
We are well past that date now, but Mr. Cernan has not otherwise been proved wrong: Mars continues to beckon. Last week also saw an unusual flurry of scientific conjecture about what may await us when, not if, we reach the Red Planet.
A new analysis by scientists in Colorado and California challenged the widely held view that today’s cold, barren Mars evolved out of a wet, warm world, hospitable to life. Rather, computer simulations suggest that Mars has long been a chilly, dry or, at best, icy planet, enduring “an almost endless winter broken by episodes of scalding rain followed by flash floods” — not a likely setting for life.
At almost the same time, a Princeton team put forward a new theory about the possible origins of life on Earth and, by extension, Mars. Researchers probing Earth’s deepest mines found microbe colonies that had been living in hot, uranium-enriched pockets of water for several hundred million years. It is conceivable, they said, that similar primitive life forms could also be found far below Mars’ cold, dusty surface.
We are years away from knowing. But not from knowing this: If we do not find what we’re looking for on Mars, we’ll push on beyond Mars toward infinity, if only because — like those wizards of pi — we can. It’s simply a matter of time.
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