Did Mars once have an ocean?
In the darkest days of the Cold War, interest in the red planet had a distinctly political dimension: Mars was a gem in the sky that one or the other superpower was bound to get to one day, and both the US and the USSR wanted to get there first. When the Cold War ended, so, it seemed, did NASA’s interest in sending spacecraft to that faraway planet. Interest in matters Martian heated briefly in 1999, when several American scholars—the heroes of Bergreen’s narrative—announced that they had identified carbonates in Martian rocks that could have been formed only in the presence of water. Spinning the story into the realm of the dumbed-down, the press excitedly reported that this was proof-positive that life had to have existed there, and this attention “gave new impetus to America’s expensive, beleaguered space program.” The problem was, the author goes on to say, that the matter of life on Mars was far more complicated than all that; his reporting on the bitter arguments between several noted space scientists is a highlight of the story, as are his forays into the sticky and sometimes nasty business of scientific politics. Carbonate-laced rocks being less sexy than the contest between astronauts and cosmonauts, NASA probably won’t be able to come up with the billions of dollars that it will take to do further research on the planet’s surface, leaving the matter of Martian life a question for future generations to puzzle out. Not that shortage of funds will keep Bergreen’s heroes down; quoting one enthusiastic scientist, he writes, “In the scientific community, everyone has their eyes on Mars, and it’s going to be that way for the next ten or twenty years.”
A solid work of science journalism.