It began sixteen million years ago. An asteroid crashing into Mars sent fragments flying into space and, eons later, one was pulled by the Earth’s gravity onto an icy wilderness near the southern pole. There, in 1984, a geologist named Roberta Score spotted it, launching it on a roundabout path to fame and controversy.
In its new home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the rock languished on a shelf for nine years, a victim of mistaken identity. Then, in 1993, the geochemist Donald “Duck” Mittlefehldt, unmasked the rock as a Martian meteorite. Before long, specialist Chris Romanek detected signs of once-living organisms on the meteorite. And the obscure rock became a rock star.
But how did nine respected investigators come to make such startling claims about the rock that they triggered one of the most venomous scientific battles in modern memory? The narrative traces the steps that led to this risky move and follows the rippling impact on the scientists’ lives, the future of space exploration, the search for life on Mars, and the struggle to understand the origins of life on Earth.
From the second the story broke in Science magazine in 1996, it spawned waves of excitement, envy, competitive zeal, and calculation. In academia, in government agencies, in laboratories around the world, and even in the Oval Office–where an inquisitive President Clinton had received the news in secret– players of all kinds plotted their next moves. Among them: David McKay, the dynamic geologist associated with the first moon landing, who labored to achieve at long last a second success; Bill Schopf of UCLA, a researcher determined to remain at the top of his field and the first to challenge McKay’s claims; Dan Goldin, the boss of NASA; and Dick Morris, the controversial presidential adviser who wanted to use the story for Clinton’s reelection and unfortunately made sure it ended up in the diary of a $200-an-hour call girl.
Impeccably researched and thrillingly involving, Kathy Sawyer’s The Rock from Mars is an exemplary work of modern nonfiction, a vivid account of the all-too-human high-stakes drive to learn our true place in the cosmic scheme.
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ROBBIE SCORE HAD no idea what she had found, and yet it was exactly what she was looking for. She noticed the object first as a dark green blemish on the clean expanse of ancient blue that shimmered around her.
In this stretch of Antarctica, December 27, 1984, was a balmy summer day, the temperature around zero Fahrenheit, the winds abating. The sunlight shone thermonuclear white. It could play tricks on your eyes. Score was on her first trip to “the ice,” cruising downslope on a snowmobile in loose formation with five others who had come here for the hunt. Inside a sarcophagus of expedition-weight clothes, she felt the painful bite of the breeze intensified by her own motion over the ground. She wore dark Polaroid glasses and three layers of gloves—glove liners, insulated gloves, and “bear paw” mittens that fit over the top of the cuff of her red polar anorak with the fur-lined hood. That and her black wind pants were standard government issue. She wore her own hat, a jaunty red, white, and black knit, which (when not covered by the hood) distinguished her from the others.
They were working in a region of soul-searing desolation known as the Far Western Icefield, whose nearest landmark was a forked ridge of rock called Allan Hills. They were a good 150 miles from the nearest outpost of anything resembling civilization. Ordinarily, the hunters would spread out in a line, about a hundred feet separating each from the next, and sweep in tandem one way and then the other across a designated grid as large as three or even five miles in one direction. Back and forth, back and forth. The downwind legs weren’t bad; but heading into the wind could be brutal, the chill searing right into your face.
In places, the ice turned washboard rough, jarring the riders with ranks of long, concrete-hard dunes called sastrugi. Built of windblown ice crystals, they could stretch to hundreds of yards in length and grow to the height of a person.
To an observer looking down from a godlike vantage, the behavior might have seemed puzzling—these bright-colored motes of life sweeping out their puny patterns in terrible isolation against a continent. But they had come here with a purpose. Their begoggled eyes were scouring the bright ground for bits of dark rubble. They were hunting the fallen husks of shooting stars. Meteorites.
The exercise itself was a little like plowing a Kansas wheat field. But you had to concentrate. Done right, the job meant hour after hour of relentless, brain-numbing eyeball concentration. If you blinked, you might miss a trophy.
During these sweeps, you were alone in your own world, in your own head. You moved through a deep, oppressive silence except for the wind and the vibrating hum and scrape of the Ski-Doo as it schussed over the hard ice. No birds sang. No trees rustled. Score would think about what was going on in her life and sing the latest rock-and-roll songs to herself, using just a smidgen of her consciousness to keep a proper distance from the hunters on either side. Maintaining focus was easier when there were lots of meteorites turning up. But some days, it seemed that the people on the other side of the grid had all the luck. It was like being in the wrong line at the bank. On days of really slim pickings, she mused about what she and her roommate would fix for dinner, wondered about events back in the real world, and sang something like maybe that Hall and Oates hit about broken ice melting in the sun.
Today, things had been going so well and the weather was so fair that, toward noon, on the spur of the moment, group leader John Schutt decided to give everybody a break from the routine. He led them on an excursion to the summit of a four-hundred-foot-high escarpment lapped by giant waves of ice, like a storm surge frozen in the instant it hit the shore. They were some forty miles out from the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. Where the hunters were now, the peaks were still buried; they had not yet pierced the miles-thick ice sheet, but the surface ice echoed their topography.
After days of feeling as if she were plying some vast and featureless sea, Score was excited about reaching this area, known as “the pinnacles.” Here, fierce winds and the resistance of the obstructions beneath the glacier had sculpted the ice into strange shapes that loomed as high as twenty feet above the ice floor. In the dazzling sun that day, the effect was magical, and a welcome relief from the sameness of “the farm.” Score got a little extra adrenaline kick from knowing there were treacherously deep crevasses to watch out for on this artful summit. The chasms were visible and easily avoided, but the roughness of the terrain forced the team to abandon their usual formation and pick their individual paths as best they could.
After a five-mile run along the top, Schutt turned them back toward the smooth designated search area below. Score felt the cold go right through her as she sat on the Ski-Doo, her gloved thumb taking the brunt of it out there on the chest-high control. She rumbled downhill toward the flat plain of blue ice, where she and the others formed up to resume their systematic search. Though the terrain was less rumpled now, the blue ice was still patchy, interrupted by drifts of hard snow sculpted in little bumps and ridges a foot or so high. The hunters would never have included this area in their normal search grid.
She saw the dark shape—about the size of a grapefruit—against the blue ice. It was completely uncovered. It looked strange, a vivid green color, quite different from the hundred or so other meteorites the team had collected this season. And it was on the large side for one so unusual. Still, over the years the hunt had yielded up a variety of types—black, orange, big, small, smooth as a discus, rough as pinecones. She saw nothing to suggest that, more than a decade in the future, this particular specimen would put her name in headlines and cause her to be known in certain circles as “the one.”
Score got off her snowmobile and waved her arms. “Hey!” she shouted, but with the hunters spread out the way they were, sound wasn’t as effective as dramatic gesturing to get their attention. As she waited in the impossible silence of the place, she stomped her feet and flailed her arms in the familiar dance that tended to accompany a rock find. Aside from any benefit to science, the event always gave the hunters a chance to rev up their blood circulation a bit.
Robbie Score was still adapting to the rigors of life here in the planet’s coldest place, where the winds that screamed down the slope of the continent sometimes kept the hunters pinned in their tents for days, where the sky relaxed its guard against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and where the air you breathed was so dry that the Sahara, by contrast, might seem like a rain forest. The dryness could split your fingers and toes if you weren’t careful to keep a good supply of Bag Balm. An injudicious smile could open fissures in your chapped lips. The atmosphere was so thin it amounted to the equivalent of working at eight thousand feet or more. Here, it was easy to feel like an alien in need of a better space suit.
The fetching brunette geologist with the apple cheeks and the thousand-watt smile had actually volunteered for this perverse version of an Easter egg hunt. She’d demanded it. As a little girl, Roberta Score, nicknamed Robbie, used to fill grocery bags full of the “pretty” rocks she picked up along the shores and in the woods around the Great Lakes and the smaller lakes of Michigan where her family vacationed. Most of these finds never made it back to their Detroit home. Her dad would discard the bulk of them once he had bundled her into the car. Still, she managed to assemble a pretty good collection in the family basement.
Score graduated from high school with honors, but she lacked direction and had no mentor. She was afraid of science and started out at a local college taking liberal arts classes. At her first opportunity, she bolted from her home turf and moved to Los Angeles with a friend. She got a job as a dental assistant and, after three years, went back to school, enrolling at UCLA with the idea of becoming a dentist.
Dental students traditionally took degrees in biology. But Score found the UCLA biology department to be a forbiddingly huge and competitive jungle, and she was not particularly interested in the subject. At the urging of a friend, she enrolled in a few geology courses. She was captivated and soon adopted geology as her major. Along the way, she got to know a guy with the odd nickname of Duck, a UCLA graduate student in geology. Nine years later, he would play a key role in the destiny of Score’s odd rock.
After she graduated, Score wanted a break before going on for an advanced degree. It was at this point that she dropped dentistry forever and focused her career on rock—the particular kind of rock that falls from the skies, the geologist’s manna.
In 1978, fresh out of the university, she answered an ad for a job at a laboratory in Houston whose very name signified how things were looking up for the arcane enterprise of meteorite collecting: it was the new Antarctic Meteorite Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She arrived on the scene shortly after geologists had begun to figure out the extent of the treasure from space that might be theirs, as long as they were willing to spend weeks at a stretch scuttling around on the ice in the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on Earth.