“The universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.” So observed J. B. S. Haldane, a scientist and popularizer of science who died in the 1960s. Thinking about existence, I can imagine no statement more accurate than Haldane’s. Not only are humans “a piece of work,” but microbes are even more puzzling. As long as there is water, they can survive the icy temperatures of outer space or the boiling cauldrons of inner earth, proving that life is anything but fragile.
Life’s tenacity has started a space war of which most of us are unaware and it began when a 20 year-old college student in Arizona started comparing images of a single Martian crater. As a result of his scrutiny, he found water. And if there was water on the planet, life might be attendant — Martians on a microbic scale.
The possibility of life on Mars puts Cassie Conley on the alert. Her job as NASA’s US planetary protection officer is to make sure we don’t endanger any “aliens” we may encounter. That caution puts her on a collision course with her bosses. The decontamination standards she’s imposing are slowing down the flight programs and increasing costs. Nonetheless, Conley is firm. We don’t want to do to Martian microbes what Europeans did to American Indians when they infected the indigenous population with small pox.
We humans imagine life is fragile because, being a complex form, we “can live only in a very small range of conditions.” (“Keep Me From Your Leader,” by Kevin Caey, Wired, Sept. 2016 pg. 59.) But simple, cellular life is hardy and adaptable to unimaginable extremes. Once our invisible “earthlings” arrive on Mars, they are free to plunder and may make it impossible for us to study the natives before they are obliterated. In short, we could initiate Star Wars on a grand but microscopic scale.
Realizing that not all earth microbes can be eliminated as we journey from Earth to Mars , Conley’s job is to determine the degree of contamination allowable. She estimates it should be no more than 0.03 microbes per square meter of a spacecraft’s surface. (Ibid pg. 59.) Unfortunately, achieving decontamination to that high degree is more difficult than getting humans to the red planet. But, as Hans Solo said, “Never tell me the odds.” That’s the human spirit.