The landing of Curiosity on Mars on Monday has stimulated my imagination about what it might find. Seeing the hype of animated flight and landing does nothing for me and I think the public is somewhat jaded by these presentations. I doubt that we will hear much about findings for some time. I went to the Mars mission website and asked a computerize Dr. X a question. The good doctor couldn’t figure out the question I asked in multiple ways and gave me the answer to the wrong question multiple times. Then I thought maybe Dr. X wants to avoid answering this question by playing stupid. So I sent an email with the same question which they encourage but I haven’t heard back. I didn’t want to know whether life once occurred on Mars. I wanted to know the likelihood of Curiosity delivering life to Mars from Earth. I know that it is not likely but not implausable considering that some theorize that life might have been delivered to primorial Earth on a meteorite.
My interest in space travel in our solar system began in the early-mid 1950s. I begged my mother to let me buy the space helmet on the right – that could be me. There were some great sci-fi movies back then that stirred my imagination. There was plenty going on to stimulate my interest in space. One Sunday probably in 1954 my best friend Paul and I went to a double feature at the South Norwalk Theater. It was “War of the Worlds” followed by “Worlds Collide” two classic sci-fi movies that I will always watch on TV today when they are shown. I think the 1954 version of War of the Worlds is better than the one made recently by Tom Cruise. Then there was another great sci-fi movie, the original ”The Day the Earth Stood Still” which we saw at the same theater. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Gene Autry’s “Underground Empire” were 15-minute serials shown every week day at 5 PM. Today these serials are less interesting but War of the Worlds was something completely new in science fiction.
Then my father bought a 6-inch reflecting telescope from Japan. I don’t remember him using it that much but I did, standing out on cold winter nights in the back yard scanning the moon’s surface which was vividly clear and detailed and the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.
One day my father described the sci-fi novel that our neighbor down the street, David Bergamini, was pondering which he called “Venus Development”. The plot was to move Venus to a new orbit closer to Earth’s orbit so that it would develop a climate more like earth and be colonized. I already had David’s Life/Time book “The Universe” with terrific pictures showing what the planets were thought to be like. I often paged through that book on rainy days. Bergamini also became noted for his “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy” published in the early 1970s. There is quite a story behind that book which I will leave for another time. Bergamini was around a lot because he was my father’s bridge partner and dad often proofed his books. The last time I saw eccentric and tempermental Bergamini was when Alan Reffler pushed Bergamini into the pool sending him into a rage which scattered all of the players and their cards. There’s more to tell about Bergamini, but no time here – back to space.
One night I was watching TV in my room while my parents were holding a party downstairs. The show I was watching was interrupted and on came a “beep, beep, beep…” Then Walter Cronkite came on to explain that this was Sputnik successfully launched from Russia. Here we are now 54 years later waiting for information on Curiosity’s findings on Mars.
In the late 1950s I was thinking of becoming an astronomer; but I became a molecular biologist instead. This expertise, in reality, was much more practical because of the advent of Biotechnology in the 1970s. Being a molecular biologist has better equipped me to think about the prospects for finding life on Mars; but then I started wondering about the prospect of delivering life to Mars by stowaways on Curiosity. Could a bacterial or fungal spore, or a photosynthetic microorganism survive the trip and then find an ecological niche on the surface of Mars? I don’t know this answer but this is the same issue being pondered by the EPA on Earth with the development of recombinant microorganisms and plants. On Earth these new microorganisms have to compete with natural microbial populations which have mechanisms to defend their niches. This barrier does not appear to exist on Mars but the harsh environment is surely a barrier.
The final question remains. Is there life or was there life on Mars? Curiosity may discover life on Mars and this would be an exciting finding. If life is found, it will be interesting to learn how it differs. Does it have the same genetic code? Does it have any genetic code? How does it replicate? I hope to be around if and when this is learned.