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The Great Martian Mystery Revealed... Sort of

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The finale of 2012's Great Martian Mystery was finally on stage Monday at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. A panel of Mars Science Laboratory scientists were first up (AGU knew better than to keep the TV networks waiting; their collective attention spans would be rapidly exceeded).

First came Paul Mahaffy, Chief of the Atmospheric Experiments Laboratory in the Solar System Exploration Division of the Goddard Space Flight Center and in charge of the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is capable of detecting organic molecules: "SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds."

Next was John Grotzinger, the mission scientist for MSL: "Even though [Mahaffy's] instrument detected organic compounds, first of all we have to determine whether they're indigenous to Mars."

So Mahaffy said, in effect, "We didn't find anything," while Grotzinger said, "He found it, but we've got to make sure it's indigenous to Mars..."

Huh?

Yes, it's a question of semantics, of details, of the parsing of the words... and they both meant the same thing, i.e. the science teams found some small indication of organic substances but it is not validated yet- hence the "definitive" jargon. And Grotzinger was certainly clear about his newfound caution when speaking to the press... once burned and so forth.

But...

We are dealing with the beginnings of what could end up being life, or pre-life, or at least simple organics on Mars. Add this to the recent (ca 2011) reinterpretation of the Viking experiments by Chris McKay at NASA's Ames Research Center, which resulted in that normally-conservative scientist saying, for all to hear, "Contrary to 30 years of perceived wisdom, Viking did detect organic materials on Mars," and you have a red-hot chili-pepper of an issue.

Monday's announcement (clarification?) occurred almost two weeks after the initial story, which created a sensation. On November 20th, Joe Palca of NPR was talking with John Grotzinger in the latter's office. As they chatted, some new findings from Curiosity's SAM instrument team came in. Grotzinger allegedly said that the results would be "one for the history books..." Palca would appear to be the person who said "Earthshaking," as an apparent reference to his conversation with Grotzinger. The story went out on NPR and within hours the national press and TV were all over it. The natural assumption, given which instrument was being discussed, was that Curiosity had found organic substances, the precursor to life (it could even be life, but Curiosity cannot definitively prove that). Headlines like "Signs of Life on Mars?" began to appear.

The NASA PR apparatus was slow to respond, then did so haltingly (though the Mars PR team at JPL did their best to address it quickly, but it was too little and too vague). The real problem was that the red-hot question was not really addressed at all. A simple announcement paralleling what was put forth Monday could have been made in one two sentences, quenching the fire. But then, NASA field centers are supposed to coordinate with their managers at NASA's headquarters in D.C., and this one may have even gone to the deputy administrator level. No wonder it took ten days to get the beginnings of a picture of what was really going on from the agency. But still the statement was vague, prolonging the mystery until Monday AM in San Francisco. And for what? To give the scientists in question a chance to vindicate themselves in person? Or was the delay merely to allow them to present their own findings at the conference? They had plenty to say and show in any case. No, NASA should have said clearly and in brief: we may have found something organic, stay tuned for more details. But instead, they fiddled while their planetary exploration budget burned.

NASA's PR machine could use a good oiling. They must stop being gun-shy because of the (now ancient history) Mars meteor debacle, when in 1996 it was announced (with Bill Clinton in attendance, no less) that a fossil had been found in a Martian meteorite collected in Antarctica. The theory was rapidly assailed by other scientists, and NASA had to suffer a retraction (though it is still open to debate whether it is a fossil or not). But seventeen years later this incident is largely forgotten; it's time to move on.

The important takeaway is this: the public is crazy about Mars right now. Curiosity continues to be a stunning success, a mission with no enemies and millions of friends worldwide. It is proceeding flawlessly and generating good science and goodwill for America, something in short supply these days. NASA has a golden opportunity to capitalize on this and finally get the funding that planetary exploration deserves. JPL is at the end of a long money-starved pipeline, and the flow is slowing to a dribble (it's been shrinking, and still more cuts are on the way next year to the tune of over $300 million).

Whether the agency will step up to the plate and properly seize this priceless moment is an open question. Recent experience is not encouraging. As was once said, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." It's time to demand more for and of our national space agency.

Rod Pyle is the author of numerous books on the space program including Destination Moon, Missions to the Moon as well as 2012's Destination Mars, and produced Modern Marvels: Apollo 11 for The History Channel.