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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Hearing on the Discovery of Evidence of Past Life on Mars

September 25, 1996

On September 25, 1996, the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the Discovery of Evidence of Past Life on Mars. Witnesses were Dr. Ernest J. Moniz, Associate Director for Science, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); Dr. Wes Huntress, Associate Administrator, Space Science Program, NASA Headquarters; Dr. David S. McKay, Assistant for Exploration, Earth Science and Solar System Exploration Division, NASA Johnson Space Center; Dr. Nancy Hinman, Assistant Professor of Geology, University of Montana; Dr. Harry Y. McSween, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Tennessee; and Dr. John Kerridge, Department of Chemistry, University of California at San Diego.

The hearing focus was on the Mars meterorite ALH84001, which was found on the ice in Antarctica in 1984 by scientists supported through the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is run by the National Science Foundation. The meteorite was analyzed by a team of NASA scientists which concluded that the sample contains strong evidence of past life on Mars. Chairman Conrad Burns (R-MT) opened the hearing by stating the main reason for spending millions of dollars on space exploration is to find out if we are alone in the universe.

Dr. McKay and his team believe they have found a number of lines of evidence in the meteorite which could be interpreted as remains of early life on Mars. Detailed analysis of trapped gas showed that it was identical to the gas of the Mars atmosphere as measured by the two U.S. Viking spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1976.

Drs. McSween and Kerridge testified that although they believe the study was carried out with exquisite care and was very intriguing, they questioned the findings of Dr. McKay's team and believe the research to date falls short of providing convincing evidence that there is life on Mars.

All witnesses agreed that more studies are needed and the only way this can be accomplished is by sending additional spacecraft to Mars to collect more samples.