Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

NASA Is Overselling Its Mars Perseverance Mission

Photo source: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the world knows, the amazing Perseverance Rover has landed on Mars. It is the first rover mission to that planet that will take rock and soil samples, depositing them in a package on the surface that will be picked up by a mission in 2026 and brought back to Earth for analysis. Perseverance is also the first rover to sport a small robotic helicopter that will scout interesting targets for future study. I could not have been more excited to hear details of the landing on the NASA official stream and to witness the first low-res image from Perseverance. Cool stuff indeed. 

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with science, and as an adult I look to the sky nightly with a sense of wonder hoping that humans will eventually be able to explore other worlds in our solar system and beyond. I share Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s vision that we must become a spacefaring civilization, as eventually we will exhaust resources on the Earth, with Mars currently the best candidate for population. Yet even if we do become better stewards of the Earth and don’t destroy it, as humans we are naturally curious and goal-seeking. So we will always look to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

A Novel Goal

The intriguing thing about the Perseverance mission is its goal, which is novel for NASA. As then NASA administrator James Bridenstine beamed just days before the Perseverance launch, in the video “Countdown to Mars: A Story of Perseverance,” this is “the first time in history where we are going to go to Mars with an explicit mission to find life on another world.” Bridenstine further noted, “We do know that Mars at one point in its history was habitable. It looked a lot like Earth about 3 billion years ago… so these are questions that I think are fundamental, that we need to have answered.” In the video, NASA astronaut Zena Cardman had this to say: “I can think of maybe no more profound question than the question of whether there is life on another planet and, you know, this, when it touches down is going to be the best scientist we’ve ever sent to the planet to answer these questions.”

The Stated Purpose

In the video, Bridenstine, along with other speakers, prattled on about the incredible technology of the Perseverance mission and the prospects of finding evidence of past life on Mars. While I share in the excitement about this groundbreaking technology and the prospect of one day seeing humans step foot on the surface of Mars, I am less sanguine about the stated purpose of the mission. That is because it fails to account for the reality that they will most likely not find any real evidence of past life on Mars. We have been down this path before with the story of Martian meteorite ALH84001 as a cautionary example of making hasty scientific claims. The problem, I think, is that NASA and the scientific community are pushing the wrong motivation on the American public for exploring Mars. They are tapping into the exciting prospect of finding life on another world. They are not honestly admitting that even the simplest forms of life are hardly simple, and thus the chances of finding past life on Mars are vanishingly small. So while I don’t believe the search for life is an adequate reason to spend $2.7 billion of taxpayer money, I do believe there are other reasons that do justify the cost, as I mentioned.

The Folly of the Scientists

Synthetic organic chemist James Tour, of Rice University, has shown the folly of NASA scientists and others in a number of videos. One of the most succinct explanations of the challenges of origin of life research can be found in the video “The Origin of Life Has Not Been Explained.” Professor Tour’s specialty is chemistry and nano-engineering, so he is highly qualified to critique origin of life research and to speak about the difficulties for the rise of life in prebiotic environments. Even the finest origin of life researchers in the world, in the world’s finest labs, cannot make the “simplest” bacterium (which, again, is hardly “simple”). They can’t make the basic building blocks of life. Even if they could make them, they would have no idea how to assemble them. So even if, theoretically, all the components were available, they would still not be able to assemble the cell in the pristine environment of the laboratory (which, of course, would be the result of intelligent activity, and even still the copying of something already previously designed). This hardly bodes well for what Tour describes as the “cesspool” of an entirely inhospitable prebiotic environment, whether on Earth or on Mars.

A Massive Misunderstanding

Tour notes in the video that there is a massive misunderstanding in the scientific community, particularly among biologists, that we understand how to build life. The truth is that none of the molecules needed to build life have been made in any type of prebiotic scenario. Those working in the origin of life arena might make one small discovery that does not take us any closer to building life, yet they extrapolate from the discovery, then go to the media and ramp it up some more. The result is that the layperson falsely believes that scientists understand how to create life when they do not, and aren’t anywhere close. This has created an attitude of distrust of science when laypeople take the time to dig into the details, only to discover in the fine print that they have been misled. And this is what I believe NASA is doing: feeding false hope to the masses instead of being honest and forthright about the origin of life.

For those interested, beyond Dr. Tour’s videos, I would point you to the exciting recent book by biochemist Michael Denton, The Miracle of the Cell, which takes an intricate look at the enormous complexity and marvelous inner workings of the cell. In Chapter 1, Denton beautifully writes: “A cell consists of trillions of atoms, representing the complexity of a jumbo jet and more, packed into a space less than a millionth of the volume of a typical grain of sand. But unlike any jumbo jet, unlike any nano-tech, or indeed unlike even the most advanced human technology of any kind, this wondrous entity can replicate itself. Here is an ‘infinity machine’ with seemingly magical powers.”