Status Report

MarsNow 1.4 Mars Attacks!

By SpaceRef Editor
August 7, 2001
Filed under , ,

[Author’s note: this is the first, but not the last, time that this
column as written won’t match the previous week’s preview blurb. My
special thanks to the people who contributed their thoughts for a Viking
piece, and I‚m confident I’ll put them to good use before too long.

Mars is its own place, yet Mars is a place of our creation. For over a
century we’ve struggled over visions of what Mars is: generations have
had their own fiery controversies, from the existence or nature of the
canals to the meaning of the Viking life detection results to the nature
of the microstructures in the ALH 84001 meteorite. But more was and is
at stake than in most scientific disputes over ambiguous data, as Mars
has always been more laden with meaning. We – scientists, artists and
laypeople alike – have created oft-competing Marses of the mind, shaped
by our understanding of the available data and shaping our hopes, fears
and desires. The best of us explore in both Marses of science and
imagination, always learning while working to shape the human-influenced
Mars of our heart’s desire. The struggle among these mental Marses
sharpens our advocacy and our understanding. Even with two visions of
Mars that challenge the legitimacy of everything we hold good and true –
call them the X-Mars of the conspiracy theorists and the Mars Attacks!
of those afraid of biological contamination or experimentation – provide
us with opportunities to better our own efforts – or to show us up as
just the sort of arrogant, manipulative elitists these believers would
have us be. The outcome of our confrontations with them is ours to

Mars Attacks! is the microbial stepchild of Orson Welles’s famous 1938
broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” That radio drama mistaken for
news caught a populace primed with the science fiction tales of Buck
Rogers and Barsoom, popular-science articles about space travel,
post-Lowellian life on Mars and the great cataclysm of the Second World
War just beginning in Europe. Fear of invasion, from Germany or outer
space, was ready to be sparked. Likewise, now, each month sees the
growth of an anti-technology protest movement directed in part against
the life sciences. Fears of epidemics like AIDS or the Ebola virus are
latent. Conspiracy theorists win adherents to the notions that NASA
never went to the Moon and is concealing evidence of Martian
civilization. Drop a sample-return mission or a human expedition
finding evidence of life into the mix, and the grim scenarios of two
recent Mars novels could well become reality.

Robert Zubrin’s novel First Landing (to be discussed more thoroughly in
a future column) posits a cynically manipulated mass hysteria that
nearly forces the stranding of a crew to allay fears of microbial
Martian monsters, while Paul McAuley’s The Secret of Life explores
high-level scientific politics in response to the release of engineered
organisms containing newly-discovered Martian genetic material. Both
address seriously issues becoming ripe: the intersection of
astrobiological research and anti-biotech protest. The potential exists
for a movement that would put a stop to Mars astrobiology in order to
preserve us from corporate- or government- sponsored environmental
threats. Put bluntly, people are scared of bugs, don’t understand
science and don’t trust scientists, politicians or corporations. If
those mistrusts and fears explode, they could hinder or stop the
exploration of Mars.

So the question becomes one of the nature of our response to this
apparent threat. Unlike the debate between mainstreamers versus
revisionists on the Viking life-detection data, or between “red” versus
“green” visions of a human Mars, many advocates of X-Mars and Mars
Attacks! reject the civil and rationalist terms of the debate, citing
faith, emotion, or secret knowledge. They‚d knock over our sandbox
rather than simply trying to steal our shovel. Some of us believe,
along with political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that refusal to play by
the rules forfeits the protection of those rules, and the gloves come
off. As a theory of criminal justice, that’s got a bit to recommend it,
and the turning of the tables in Zubrin’s novel is quite emotionally
satisfying. Yet I believe that such an approach with respect to any
opponents of a rational search for life on Mars is tactically unsound,
unnecessary, and probably flat wrong.

Any irrational, absolutist opposition to the search for Martian life,
rather than being necessarily a precursor to something like the Khmer
Rouge’s shooting of anybody literate, actually does the astrobiology and
space advocacy communities a service. Several years ago novelist Kim
Stanley Robinson warned a Mars Society audience of what he called “the
narcissism of petty differences:” our tendency to expend more time and
energy fighting against our comrades-in-arms over minutiae than in
expanding our numbers or our public effectiveness. Advocates of the
economic freedoms loosely known as “globalization” are just awakening to
the fact that protesters are forcing them to articulate clearly the
advantages of their agenda, and to improve their arguments through
competition in an ideological marketplace. The same can hold true for
advocates of scientific research into possible Martian life. We can
seize the opportunity to do something scientists rarely do: explain
their work to laypeople and convince them of its value.

Demagogues can only sell what people want to buy. In the decade past,
Americans were buying, and rabble-rousers of all political persuasions
were popular. These days, they’ve almost all faded away. Market
conditions have changed. Any attempt to provoke the latent fears of
Martian life may face an uphill struggle. Similarly, any attempts at
counter-demagogery by the Mars community are likely to be ineffectual
and resented. We can be manipulated, but we tend to resent the hell out
of the people who do so: hence, the unpopularity of used car salesmen,
lawyers and politicians. Acting like used car salesmen to advance our
agenda will only earn us deserved contempt. On the other hand, while we
are ignorant and mistrusting, we’re practical-minded. Anyone who can
make the case that reason is good and useful (and a better product than
fear and paranoia), and that the search for life on Mars is reasonable,
good and useful, can do much to prevent a “War of the Worlds” panic or
Seattle riots at JSC.

There’s much to be done, and I’ll be revisiting this issue regularly. A
few first steps are being taken. This month, a group called Greens4Mars
will be hosting a panel discussion at the Mars Society conference. The
Space Frontier Foundation has been actively reaching out to the
environmental community, thanks to a NASA grant in support of space
solar power research and education. Its annual conference this October
will feature SETI pioneer Frank Drake and a focus on contact with
extraterrestrial life. For a few years I’ve been discussing the
possibility of an environmental and space advocate’s roundtable. It’s
premature, as the communities have precious few ties right now. But
there’s much we can do to reach out to people and groups with both
legitimate concerns and irrational fears, to begin a discussion. If we
can’t convince people that astrobiology and its advocates aren’t
dangerous and crazy, we’ll get what we deserve.


Next week: “Red Tarzana” Having briefly sketched one vision of Mars as
a source of deadly government-corporate poisons, I’ll turn to my own
vision of Mars, as part of an occasional series in which advocates of
other views will have an opportunity to present them here themselves.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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SpaceRef staff editor.