The Strange Origin of the Search for Life on Mars


A few years after Dr. Strughold started at the Air Force, he published “Life on Mars in View of Physiological Principles.” Two years later, in 1953, he wrote “The Green and Red Planet,” scientifically coining the term “astrobiology” and considering whether a low-pressure chamber — a shrunken version of those in his aviation experiments — could mimic Mars.

It was a wild idea, and afraid of his colleagues’ judgment, he began a simple version of the experiment at home. He purchased jars and a thermometer, gathered lava and lichens. He put the material and the plants in the jars and let them hang in his kitchen during the day; at night, he put them in the icebox.

Two weeks later, the lichens lived.

Encouraged by the results, Dr. Strughold shared them at the office. By 1956, more sophisticated versions of Mars Jars had become part of the Air Force’s research agenda. Imagining a military base on that red-rock planet, the scientists wanted to see if hypothetical Martian microbes might help them create a self-sustaining ecosystem.

At the end of the trials, some life had found a way. Certain microbes even reproduced. “Earth life could survive there, or life could arise — life as we know it — and we might encounter that life there as well,” Dr. Bimm said, describing their conclusions. Dr. Strughold’s work provided a vision of a microbial Mars that persists today, and wasn’t really popular before the jars.

A year later, Dr. Strughold hosted “Problems Common to Astronomy and Biology,” the first-ever astrobiology symposium.

Despite these firsts, Dr. Strughold isn’t part of most scientists’ remembrances of astrobiology. The typical retelling involves civilian scientists, who crafted and are characters in an origin story that skips over the military scenes.

In that story, astrobiology starts in 1957, when Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg dines with another biologist during a lunar eclipse and discusses how the Cold War arms and space races could forever confuse the search for alien life.



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