Book Excerpt

It’s 6:15 in the morning when Jim Garvin, a planetary geologist who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, meets me at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport. As arranged, he’s flown in from Baltimore, and I’ve come from New York. Jim is forty-one, talks in torrents, and is plainly Type A, endowed with the passion and restlessness of an old-fashioned genius. Although he has two small children, he puts in eighty-hour work weeks. He is intense. There is no such thing as a short conversation with Garvin. His replies to simple questions have a way of digressing into hour-long ruminations on the nature and origins of the universe, but he gets away with it mostly because he is unfailingly polite. Once he launches into a monologue, he gestures emphatically, as if visualizing and touching everything he describes. He is fit and compact, with black hair, handsome Irish features, and a perpetually worried voice. He looks clean-cut, at least compared to other scientists, and his skin is slightly irritated in patches, as though he’s been vigorously applying after shave lotion. A friend once told me it is often hard to get Jim Garvin’s attention, but once you do, it can be overwhelming. Now I have his attention.

After we retrieve our bags, Jim sets out to find Oscar, the pilot of the plane we’ve hired to take us from Keflavik to the island of Heimaey, off the southern coast of Iceland, where we are to rendezvous with the Iceland Coast Guard, weather permitting. Oscar, when we catch up with him, looks too young to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane. We cram ourselves into his single-engine Aerospatiale, a lightweight aircraft of French design. The co-pilot’s seat I occupy is so cramped that my knees interfere with the controls. We are battling fatigue, Jim and I. We have been up all night, and the inside of my mouth tastes like kerosene from the Aerospatiale’s tank.

We have come all this way because geologists studying Mars have designated Iceland a Mars analogue. In 1976, when the Viking Lander returned color images of the Red Planet, scientists realized that Mars bears a striking resemblance to the landscape sliding below Oscar’s little airplane. Iceland is, in many places, an arctic desert devoid of vegetation and untouched by humanity. These days, NASA-supported scientists regularly visit to study this volcano-ridden island to compared it to its distant relative, Mars. The theory is that by studying Iceland, scientists can better understand the workings of the Red Planet. Iceland is only twenty million years old, a geological babe, and thus relatively unweathered, a primeval landscape. The absence of trees on the Icelandic landscape is a blessing, revealing the island’s geological makeup. Mars is similarly bare. Iceland festers with active and dormant volcanoes – just as Mars does. The resemblance makes it possible to work out significant aspects of the geologic history of both places by comparing the two.

Mars is oddly reminiscent of Earth in other ways; it is considered “semi-habitable.” The atmosphere is only one percent as dense as ours, but breathable air could be extracted from it. The Martian day, or “sol,” lasts about as long as a day on Earth; a Martian year consists of 687 Earth days. Like Earth, Mars has its seasons, but they last twice as long. And Martian weather conditions are anything but monotonous or predictable. In 1997, when Pathfinder landed on Mars, its tiny weather station gathered data on the local Martian weather, which NASA posted on the Internet. The reports showed that temperatures range from 600 Fahrenheit at noon to -1000 F at night. Travelers’ advisory: because of the much lower atmospheric pressure on Mars, surface temperatures differ drastically from air temperatures. If you were standing on the surface in midday, your feet would be warm and snug, but the fluids in your head would freeze. Mars’ atmosphere has fog, wind, and red dust, lending pink tints to a sky accented by two small, misshapen moons, Phobos (“fear”) and Deimos (“terror”).

Mars resembles Earth in other ways. Its polar ice caps wax and wane seasonally. There are clouds. There is ample geologic evidence that rivers once flowed freely on its surface. The stage has long been set for life to appear there. Yet the Earth teems with life, while Mars appears barren, at least on the surface. Why? No one really knows, yet the answers may lurk in the perplexing differences between the two planets.

The Earth’s surface consists of overlapping, often ill-fitting plates covering its molten interior. They form a crust like an eggshell, thin and brittle. They bump and grind against each other; occasionally they pull apart, as they are doing now in Iceland, giving rise to earthquakes and volcanoes and mountain ridges lurking beneath the oceans. Iceland sits right on the spine of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a segment of the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which is the longest mountain range on Earth, extending 40,000 miles, or one-and-a-half times around the planet. Iceland’s unique placement means that half of it belongs, in a geological sense, to the European continent, and half to the American. And the two halves are pulling apart at the rate of one centimeter a year. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when this movement occurs over the course of ten or twelve million years, it eventually becomes a very big deal. Iceland could break apart and be absorbed by other, larger land masses. Or if it surges in volcanic activity, it could enlarge itself, adding enough real estate to accommodate many more hardy souls. For now, a seam runs right through Iceland, clearly marked in some places by a narrow chasm and in others by small streams and little cracks. If you jump across one of the cracks, you jump from one continent to another.

At this moment, no one knows for certain if Mars has or had plates similar to Earth’s, or, if the Red Planet did have them, how they operated. If Mars never had crustal plates, their absence poses interesting questions about how it developed without them. And if it did, we see no direct evidence of them – not yet, at any rate. The geologic processes associated with crustal plates would have affected the way life did, or did not, develop on Mars.

“Nothing you see here is more than ten thousand years old,” Jim shouts over the whine of the engine, as we pass over the Reykjanes Peninsula region of southwest Iceland, “and some of it is only five thousand years old, or less.” Jim lives by the geological clock, which extends billions of years, all the way back to the formation of the universe. The universe is an old, old place, perhaps 15 billion years old, possibly more, and the planets of our Solar System are old, too, something on the order of 4.7 billion years. When you measure time in billions of years, you dismiss a million years as a hiccup. A span of five or ten thousand years is insignificant. The concept of a year, the time it takes for the Earth to complete a revolution around the Sun, scarcely seems an adequate yardstick for measuring the development of the Universe and the planets. Iceland’s arriviste status in the geological scheme of things is rare and intriguing; the place teems with clues about the formation of Earth, of Mars, and of the entire Solar System. To understand the Red Planet, even partially, is to understand something about the nature of the universe, to catch glimpses of our distant past and our future, to extend perception to a scale much larger than ordinary human comprehension, to harness the imagination to the intellect, and the intellect to the stars.

These days, planetary scientists like Jim regard the geology of Mars as crucial for understanding Earth and the other rocky planets in the Solar System – Venus and Mercury (and the moon, as well). Jim reminded me that the geologic prizes on Mars are rich. Although it is forty percent smaller than Earth, Mars’ peaks and valleys are far more extreme. The continental United States could fit nicely into one of its canyons. Its volcanoes are awesome. The largest, Olympus Mons, is more than 90,000 feet high. It would tower over Mt. Everest, and it’s large enough to occupy the state of Arizona. It is one hundred times larger than the biggest volcano on Earth; in fact, Olympus Mons is the largest mountain in the entire Solar System. Mars is a planet of geological superlatives.

Oscar levels off the Aerospatiale at 2,000 feet. Beneath us, the primeval landscape – gray and brown and black, rocky and dusty and nearly treeless – extends toward the horizon. Is this what it would be like to fly over the scarred surface of Mars? Eventually, we cross a beach, and the island of Heimaey, our stopover point, lies ahead, gradually gathering substance in the blue mist. It is a remarkably tranquil day, so calm that a limp windsock on the ground barely swivels as we veer toward the island’s tiny runway, a strip of asphalt running uphill between two volcanic peaks. Ever since leaving New York, I’ve been placing my life in the hands of complete strangers, and now, sitting beside Oscar as he casually maneuvers his small aircraft, I wonder if I’ve finally gone too far.

“Move your legs! Please!”

Oscar orders me to contract so he can freely guide us to a safe landing. The plane taxis to a standstill. We are almost there.

Jim hasn’t managed to coax NASA into funding this leg of the journey – which comes to about $300. As we slap down our plastic to pay the bill, Jim cites NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” way of doing business to explain why we must pay the airfare to conduct scientific research. Dan Goldin, NASA’s mercurial Administrator, instituted the policy when he took over the agency in 1992. NASA, like any federal bureaucracy, has indulged in its share of waste and redundancy, and Goldin, coming out of private industry, wanted to trim the bureaucratic flab and refocus NASA. Essentially, he wanted to do more with less. He increased the number of planetary missions under the “faster-cheaper-better” regimen; instead of one expensive mission, the agency would send two, or even four cheap ones, and the returns would be correspondingly greater. And they were! But planetary exploration at any price is an exceedingly risky business, and more missions has also meant more failures. In the grip of “faster-better-cheaper,” NASA didn’t realize that the American public would fasten onto the failures of its recent missions to the Red Planet – Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander – and forget the successful ones. The notion that NASA was exploring the planets on the cheap and occasionally bungled the job alarmed the media, and it alarmed Congress – how could this have happened? – yet it was Congress who, year by year, imposed the budget cuts on NASA that led the agency to adopt “faster-cheaper-better.” The result is NASA Lite.

The cuts have been playing havoc with Jim’s work life. For weeks, the Iceland expedition has been in doubt because of the fragile health of the reconnaissance plane, a modified P-3. This is a large four-engine turbo-prop originally meant to fly low over the ocean to detect submarines lurking below the surface. NASA adapted this aircraft for remote sensing: measuring geological, oceanographic, and atmospheric features with instruments used in conjunction with satellites. But NASA’s P-3 is a thirty-year-old rust bucket, and it has seen hard use. Jim has reminisced about the crew’s Technicolor yawns as the plane followed the rolling terrain at a low altitude, like an airborne roller coaster. He has described the spider web cracks that developed in the windshield during an Iceland mission in May 1996. The windshield threatened to crack wide open, jeopardizing the mission. One pilot gave an order to don emergency gear, but the other pilot disagreed, and besides, they had no emergency gear or crash helmets or parachutes. To make matters worse, they were carrying too much fuel to land, and the Icelandic government prohibits dumping fuel into the Atlantic. They had to fly for hours at slow speed, burning fuel, until they could land safely and legally. More recently, the plane developed a chronic fuel leak and lost an engine in flight over Greenland. The accumulated weight of these stories worried me. Even Jim, who does this kind of thing for a living, was anxious. I checked out the P-3 with my friend Peter, a commercial pilot who has flown all over the world in dicey equipment. Peter explained that, worst case scenario, if an engine or two quit, the plane could coast more or less gently to the ground, unlike a helicopter, which would sink like a stone. I was not completely reassured.

NASA keeps the rust bucket aloft, despite everything, “to facilitate cost-effective essential remote sensing that has inexorably been rewriting textbooks associated with atmospheric science, climate change, and the lay of the land,” as Jim puts it. In other words, this rust bucket is changing the way scientists think about how our planet works.

Despite the significance of its science missions and the public dismay when they go wrong, relentless budget cutting continues to afflict NASA. The agency now receives less than 14 billion dollars a year, less than one percent of the overall federal budget, and each year its budget shrinks a little more. The unkindest cuts of all affect people, not hardware. Dan Goldin earns about $150,000 a year, and scientists like Jim Garvin, who hold one or more advanced degrees and are often among the leading figures in their fields, earn less, something equivalent to a college professor’s salary. Unlike academics, they work six or seven days a week, year round, without sabbaticals. And NASA has stringent rules governing outside income from consulting or lecturing, so moonlighting is out of the question, even if the NASA scientists had time for such activities, which they don’t. Willingly or not, Jim and his colleagues must emulate the example of Louis Agassiz, the famous naturalist, who stated, “I cannot afford to waste my time making money.”

Why do they do it? Why do these driven scientists, who could be earning several times more than their current salaries in private industry, stick with stingy old NASA? Why do they remain oblivious to imploring spouses and former colleagues who have gone to seek their fortunes in private industry? The most these NASA scientists can reasonably hope for is recognition from their peers, if they make a major discovery. They’ll have an easier time getting grants, lots of impressive plaques to hang on the wall, and that’s about it. Despite the influence of their ideas on the course of science and exploration, obscurity is often their lot. Who can name the members of the team that in 1996 announced possible evidence of fossilized life in a Martian meteorite – a discovery that, if correct, will stand as one of the most significant breakthroughs of all time? Who can name any NASA-supported scientist, for that matter, with the possible exception of Carl Sagan? And who, outside of the scientific community, is aware of Sagan’s actual role in NASA’s exploration of space?

Sagan’s success as a popularizer of the Cosmos obscures his real achievements as a scientist, thinker, and writer. A productive scientist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he frequently appeared on the Tonight Show; he didn’t fit into neat categories. He was cursed with charisma. An astronomer by training, he gave a convincing impression of being at home with a number of disciplines ranging from mathematics to history. His fascination with space offered reassurance rather than terror of the unknown. He developed a benign, Jeffersonian vision of the universe as the last frontier, the ultimate, infinite West, where humanity would be able to seek refuge after fouling this planet and possibly destroying itself in the process. Sagan’s outer space, like Thomas Jefferson’s West, offered sufficient scope to alleviate humanity’s ills. He was pessimistic about the future of mankind if we were confined to Earth for too long. It seemed to him a near certainty that, sooner or later, we would blow ourselves up. The only escape from his Malthusian nihilism was the vastness of space and the promise of distant planets, where humankind could start anew. This vision of space as the new frontier had influenced NASA from its inception, imparting a sense of purpose, and it inspired younger scientists by giving them a larger context for their research. In the midst of bureaucratic setbacks and budget battles, Sagan knew what was at stake in the exploration of space: over the short term, enlightenment, over the long term, the survival of humanity.

Throughout his career, he cultivated a special fascination with Mars. For him, it was a touchstone of all heavenly bodies and possibly the salvation of humanity. He wrote about it for scientists and for general readers, artfully mixing speculation and scientific fact. He prodded NASA to explore. He participated in the 1976 Viking experiments. And he held out hope for life on Mars. As early as 1966, when the conventional wisdom in the scientific community, chastened by the barren photographs resulting from the Mariner missions, held the chance of life on Mars to be zero, Sagan, almost alone among prominent scientists, speculated that such a phenomenon might still be possible. Despite his belief in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Sagan kept one foot firmly planted on scientific terra firma. He insisted that extraordinary conclusions, such as evidence of life on Mars, require extraordinary proof, and as far as he was concerned, the tantalizing hints that life might exist on Mars did not meet that high standard.

Sagan influenced a generation of younger scientists, who have their hands on the levers of the future and who fervently believe that now is their time to change scientific thinking about the nature of the universe and our place in it. They stick with their work for many reasons: because they can’t do without it; because NASA gives them the means to do what they’ve yearned for since they were children growing up in the heyday of the Space Race, watching John Glenn go into orbit; because NASA will let them send something of their own design – a part of them – into space; because NASA has the rockets and the launch facilities and the infrastructure to get it done; because NASA will validate their work in the eyes of the scientific community and the world. Because, when it comes to planetary exploration, NASA is the only game in town.

(C) Laurence Bergreen. All rights reserved.