The media gave the discovery extensive coverage. As John Noble Wilford, veteran science writer for the New York Times, recalled of his thinking at the time, if the claims were true, “this would be the biggest story of my career—bar none.”26 His newspaper editorialized that the claims needed confirmation, but the credibility of the scientists involved meant that they had to be taken seriously. One of them, from Stanford, was Richard Zare, prominent chemist and chairman of the National Science Foundation’s board. The New York Times said that the discovery could be “a transforming event of our time.” The Washington Post commented that the announcement made normal politics in Washington stop “for a moment or two of wonder.”27
Many scientists were quoted in the media, a number of whom expressed skepticism. One was Thomas Ahrens, a planetary scientist at Caltech. He called the
findings “hypothetical” and said if any one of the assumptions the investigators made were false, the whole interpretation would collapse “like a house of cards.” Sagan’s past general statement that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was used by critics against these particular claims. But Sagan, who had reviewed the Science article, emphasized the significance of the claims: “If the results are verified, it is a turning point in human history.”28 Amidst the scientific give and take, one scientist, Harry McSweet of the University of Tennessee, expressed a very personal reaction: “I don’t know if this is evidence of life or not, but I want it to be.”29
Goldin quickly established an ad hoc Mars Science Strategy Group under Dan McCleese of JPL to advise on what NASA should do in response. Mc- Cleese was a long-term Mars scientist who was now manager of exploration and space science at JPL. On August 14, 1996, one day before the McCleese group met, Huntress wrote Goldin a memo that the group would commence a reorientation in Mars strategy. “Our current strategy for the Mars Surveyor Program is driven by the goals of looking for water, resources, and evidence of climate change as well as life. This group will look at how the current strategy should be changed to focus on the search for evidence of life as the single most important priority.” Huntress said he would also engage the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board (previously known as the Space Science Board) in the reorienting process.30
Goldin, on August 15, met with the McCleese group. McCleese remembered Goldin discussing the Mars meteorite and what its implications were for NASA in making “life” a focus for science strategy. “How do we follow-up” on the meteorite? Goldin asked McCleese and his team. “We have to have a sample return,” they responded. Well, said Goldin, “can you do it in 2001 ?” The scientists stated that they did not think that would be possible. There were issues of money, technology, and “we don’t know where to look.” They also told Goldin that the science since Viking had centered on “habitability” as a theme. It was critical, they said, not to repeat the mistake of Viking, which had framed the life question in “yes or no” terms. The answer had seemed to come back “no,” and that had made it difficult for NASA and the Mars science community to talk about Martian life ever since as a rationale for exploration.31
Goldin wanted to know if the missions currently on NASA’s drawing board, specifically Mars Global Surveyor and Pathfinder, would get at the life question. No, said the scientists. It would take different technology, and NASA would have to look at Mars in a planet-wide context. Ok, said Goldin, “what’s the next step?” McCleese and his team said they would try to answer him, but it would require some study.32
Goldin told the group to forget the politics, ignore the aerospace contractors, and concentrate on “what is the right thing to do” from the standpoint of good science. He asked for three options for accelerating progress toward MSR: “relaxed,” “nominal,” and “fast.” He indicated that NASA might have to have international cooperation to do the job. In any event, he declared that while science could provide the direction, “the political process will say how fast we can go.”33
Three days later, McCleese’s panel made recommendations. McCleese told the media that NASA could reduce the amount of research on climate and other topics and develop more land rovers and subsurface drilling equipment. As early as 2001, robots could gather samples of Mars soil and rocks at especially promising places, with those samples brought back to Earth in 2003. Money was obviously critical to the “fast” option. The group suggested that international collaboration might well be needed. McCleese commented also that one problem his group had in making recommendations was the absence of exobiologists. Since Viking, he said, “there has been a turning away from biology as an active part of the NASA program.” Now, “we are looking for a resurgence of a field.” NASA would have to find specialists and “convince them NASA is serious.”34
The 2001 option for a crash project for MSR did not last. McCleese and NASA wound up with 2005 as more realistic.35 Not everyone agreed with this date, which seemed to fit the “nominal” option Goldin had requested. Some thought sooner, some later—but virtually everyone involved in NASA’s decision process wanted to accelerate the quest for Martian life.
On September 19, Clinton issued his National Space Policy. The policy had been in the works prior to the Mars meteorite excitement. It was broader than civil space. However, it reflected the recent meteorite discovery and gave clear emphasis to Mars exploration as the top NASA and White House priority in space science. For the first time, an administration committed NASA to “support a robotic presence on the surface of Mars by the year 2000.” Calling for sample return, the policy also endorsed the Origins initiative. It directed that NASA should look for “planetary bodies in orbit around other stars.”36
What the Clinton policy did not do was call for a human Mars program, even as a long-term goal, as Goldin and advocates such as Zubrin might have hoped.
The Clinton administration wanted NASA to finish assembling the much – troubled space station before considering a human Mars decision.37
The Mars rock, still being debated scientifically, had already made a political and policy difference. The driver in Mars exploration was now established at the NASA Administrator and presidential level: the search for evidence of past or present extraterrestrial life. Gore decided that before the end-of-year policy summit took place he would bring together scientists, philosophers, and theologians to discuss the broader implications of the Mars meteorite. Gibbons, in turn, asked NASA and the NAS National Research Council to convene an interdisciplinary group of scientists to better delineate the Origins theme and Mars strategy. On October 28-30, NASA and the NAS-NRC convened three dozen leading scientists to consider the concept of Origins as a unifying strategy for shaping NASA’s scientific future, including that of Mars exploration.
NASA intended Origins as a “big tent” under which many space scientists could gather and which could unite them and also attract public support. It was about studying origins of the universe and the beginnings of life wherever it could be found. Mars was central, but since Viking, space exploration had broadened and extended to the outer planets and solar systems of stars beyond. There was speculation about life under ice at Europa, a Jupiter moon, and at “other Earths” around distant stars.38
The aim of the meeting was to gain a scientific consensus on Origins as a theme for space science and—from NASA’s perspective—“to convince the Clinton Administration that further cuts to NASA’s science budget will endanger efforts to understand how life emerged.”39 Mars was integral to Origins. Ultimately, the question of priorities and money would come up, but the meetings, as well as the upcoming Gore conference, were primarily about “what” and not “how much.”
Meanwhile, on November 7, NASA launched MGS. The cost was approximately $250 million, a fact that gave Goldin the opportunity to say that “Global Surveyor will give us 80% of Observer’s science at one-quarter of the cost.”40 As MGS lifted off, Huntress beamed: “These are the kinds of days you. . . live for in space science and exploration.” He commented that “it seems to have come together for Mars this year.” But “to put a nail on that”—the question of life—he said, “NASA had to return samples.”41 “We will go to Mars,” Goldin stated unequivocally at a George Washington University Space Policy Conference on the Mars rock.42