The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

by Sarah Stewart Johnson


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“Sarah Stewart Johnson interweaves her own coming-of-age story as a planetary scientist with a vivid history of the exploration of Mars in this celebration of human curiosity, passion, and perseverance.”—Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review Times (UK) • Library Journal

“Lovely . . . Johnson’s prose swirls with lyrical wonder, as varied and multihued as the apricot deserts, butterscotch skies and blue sunsets of Mars.”—Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review

Mars was once similar to Earth, but today there are no rivers, no lakes, no oceans. Coated in red dust, the terrain is bewilderingly empty. And yet multiple spacecraft are circling Mars, sweeping over Terra Sabaea, Syrtis Major, the dunes of Elysium, and Mare Sirenum—on the brink, perhaps, of a staggering find, one that would inspire humankind as much as any discovery in the history of modern science.

In this beautifully observed, deeply personal book, Georgetown scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson tells the story of how she and other researchers have scoured Mars for signs of life, transforming the planet from a distant point of light into a world of its own.

Johnson’s fascination with Mars began as a child in Kentucky, turning over rocks with her father and looking at planets in the night sky. She now conducts fieldwork in some of Earth’s most hostile environments, such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and the salt flats of Western Australia, developing methods for detecting life on other worlds. Here, with poetic precision, she interlaces her own personal journey—as a female scientist and a mother—with tales of other seekers, from Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a utopian society existed on Mars, to Audouin Dollfus, who tried to carry out astronomical observations from a stratospheric balloon. In the process, she shows how the story of Mars is also a story about Earth: This other world has been our mirror, our foil, a telltale reflection of our own anxieties and yearnings.

Empathetic and evocative, The Sirens of Mars offers an unlikely natural history of a place where no human has ever set foot, while providing a vivid portrait of our quest to defy our isolation in the cosmos.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101904817
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 55,862
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sarah Stewart Johnson is an assistant professor of planetary science at Georgetown University. A former Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow, she received her PhD from MIT and has worked on NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. She is also a visiting scientist with the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Read an Excerpt

In July of 1965, as a tiny octagonal spacecraft swooped across the Martian surface, my father, who had just turned eighteen, was standing tall on a humid, hardwood-forested hill in Appalachia. There on the edge of Viper, Kentucky—below a hundred kilometers of nitrogen and oxygen, under the Kármán line, the exosphere, and the Van Allen belt, beneath the great, vast vacuum of space—a small natural-gas company had sent a bulldozer up a holler and had set about carving out a flat spot for drilling. On the days my father managed to drive the old jeep through the creek bed without flooding the engine, he joined an overalls-clad, illiterate crew in digging ditches and laying pipe, occasionally carrying the casing for the drill head. He’d hoped to spend the summer as a fledgling assistant to the company geologist, but within two weeks, every available worker had been sent to the hillside.

The news about the world’s first Mars mission, Mariner 4, came by way of The Courier-Journal, the newspaper out of Louisville. It arrived on a truck that twisted along the deeply gouged mountain roads, passed the coal camps, passed Hazard High School, and made its way into the small downtown, which was bound like a bobby pin by the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

That morning, my grandfather had picked up the newspaper from Fouts Drug. He’d tucked it under his arm on his way to work at the health department. As a medical technician, he inspected the Cold War–era bomb shelters that dotted the mountain ridges to make sure the food stocks were safe and drew blood to test for syphilis before young couples got married. He took pride in the fact that everyone in town called him “Doc.” He wasn’t a doctor, but he did give penicillin shots throughout the hills of eastern Kentucky: down in Gilly, up in Typo, in Slemp and Scuddy, in Happy, Yeaddiss, and Busy. When my grandmother wasn’t giving perms, she would help out. She liked running the X-ray machine.

It was still muggy later that evening as my grandfather meandered up Broadway—a street that was anything but broad, a single paved lane that fell steeply into backyards teeming with kudzu. He walked into a house that hung like a bat to the side of the ravine, leaving The Courier-Journal in the attic bedroom, which was spacious now that four of the six kids had left home. His lanky, wide-eared child, his youngest son, would also leave at the end of the summer, heading two hours west across the steep forested slopes to attend Berea College. My grandfather put the paper on the quilt where my father was sure to find it, next to his Popular Science magazine, right beneath a poster of the pockmarked moon.

My father had been rapt by the idea of the mission, NASA’s chance to photograph the planet most similar to Earth. As the mountain town rotated into darkness that Wednesday, my father climbed the steps, aching and exhausted, and he saw the headline. Above the fold, between a picture of Willie Mays and an article on Vietnam, was what he’d been waiting for: mankind, through mariner, reaching for mars today. He smiled and fell into bed as he read. “Today the fingertip of mankind reaches out 134 million miles to Mars, almost touching the only other body in the solar system widely suspected of harboring life . . .”

On the other side of the country, in a canyon north of Pasadena, an eager crowd had gathered on the campus of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Inside JPL’s von Kármán auditorium, intertwined cables, thick and vaguely subterranean, unfurled from a cluster of television cameras and snaked across the floor to the vans outside. Radio from all over the world was hooked in by relay, and the Brits were poised to broadcast a live television feed, having leased a full two minutes of time from the “Early Bird” satellite. There were thirty-seven phones in varying states of use: thirty-six within the press bank, and one sitting atop a desk as part of a small fake office where the TV broadcasters could be filmed.

From floor to ceiling, dominating one side of the great room, was a full-scale spacecraft, one of the flight-ready spares that had been used for temperature-control testing. It had the same octagonal magnesium frame as Mariner 4, the same 260 kilograms of hardware and instrumentation. There were 138,000 parts in all: aluminum tubes, attitude-control jets, pyro end cabling. The solar panels, including flaps at the end, stretched seven meters. Coated with sapphire glass, glistening in the beams of the television lights, they looked like the wings of a jeweled pterodactyl.

Much depended on this craft. In a scene that played out repeatedly over the course of the twentieth century, a Soviet spacecraft was approaching Mars at the same time. It had launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome just two days after Mariner 4. It had reached Mars, but, much to NASA’s delight, it wouldn’t be returning any data. Halfway there, irregular updates had started coming from its communications systems, and then the transmitter died. It was now no more than “the voiceless ‘Russian spy,’ ” “The ‘Dead’ Soviet Mars missile.” At long last, the United States had a chance to pull ahead in the Space Race.

There was only one hurdle standing in the way of American triumph: Mariner 4 had to aim and actuate the camera and successfully transmit its images back to Earth. This was no easy feat. Mars was so far from the sun that the mission only had 310 watts of usable power, the equivalent of a couple of lightbulbs. The power available to send the data stream would be a mere ten watts to start, which would dissipate to a tenth of a billionth of a billionth of a watt by the time it was captured in the great dishes of the Deep Space Network, the newly built antennas on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Canberra, and deep in the Mojave Desert. And even if the data arrived, there were worries. What if the pictures snapped a bit too early, or a bit too late? What if the spacecraft inadvertently twisted away from the planet at just the wrong moment? What if the camera failed to shut off, recording over the photographs of Mars with pointless photographs of empty space?

The Soviets had been trying to reach Mars for five years. In space exploration as in all things, they were a formidable adversary. In 1960, their first pair of missions had coincided with Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He’d commissioned models of the Mars probes and brought them along to show the world. Less than two months earlier, his lead rocket engineer had launched into space the first sentient beings that returned safely to Earth: two dogs, a gray rabbit, forty mice, two rats, and several flies.

But the Soviets were not so lucky this time. As the delegates assembled in New York, the first rocket to Mars failed, climbing just 120 kilometers before falling back to Earth and crashing in eastern Siberia. Then the second rocket failed: A cryogenic leak had frozen the kerosene fuel in the engine inlet. Khrushchev had been relying on another splendid performance from his ambitious young space program and was furious as he paced the halls of the U.N. Before the plenary meeting came to a close, he supposedly went so far as to pull off his shoe, enraged, and brandish it angrily at another country’s delegate.

The Soviets tried again with a trio of missions in 1962. The first ruptured in orbit, fanning out debris that was detected by a U.S. radar installation in Alaska. It was nine days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the wreckage was momentarily feared by Air Defense Command to be the start of a Soviet nuclear attack. The third also exploded, the main hull of the booster reentering the atmosphere on Christmas Day, followed a month later by the payload. The second, however, traveled 100 million kilometers away from Earth and went on to make the first flyby of Mars—though it was a mute witness to the event, as its transmitter failed, the same thing that happened two years later.

The Soviets kept their defeats to themselves and trumpeted their successes—which were numerous enough to show that they had a decided lead over the Americans. They had reached practically every milestone in the Space Race: the first artificial satellite, the first animal in space, the first man, the first woman. They’d intentionally crashed a spacecraft into the moon and taken the first pictures of its far side, and they were now poised to claim the first spacewalk.

The United States, by contrast, had successfully completed only one planetary mission, Mariner 2 to Venus. Worse, the Venus mission, the “Mission of Seven Miracles,” had barely worked. It was a wonder that it had managed to collect any data at all, flying by the seat of its pants, “limping on one solar panel and heated to within an inch of its life.”

And getting to Venus was easier than getting to Mars. To reach the Red Planet, the spacecraft’s systems had to stay alive for an extra hundred days, and the data had to be transmitted twice as far. Transistors were new and bulky, and the microchip had just been invented. The computing power of the whole spacecraft was no better than that of a pocket calculator, yet the spacecraft had to rely on a never-before-tested star tracker to point the way. For the first time in history, a NASA probe was drifting into the darkness, traveling away from everything bright in the night—the Earth, the moon, the sun. Just like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, it was poised to be “the first that ever burst/Into that silent sea.”

Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Part 1 A Point is that Which has no Part.

Chapter 1 Into the Silent Sea 3

Chapter 2 The Light that Shifts 20

Chapter 3 Red Smoke 37

Part 2 A Line is Breadthless Length.

Chapter 4 The Gates of the Wonder World 53

Chapter 5 Stone from the Sky 73

Chapter 6 Traversing 88

Chapter 7 Periapsis 102

Chapter 8 The Acid Flats 118

Part 3 A Boundary is that which is an Extremity of Anything.

Chapter 9 In Aeternum 137

Chapter 10 Sweet Water 155

Chapter 11 Form from a Formless Thing 167

Acknowledgments 183

Notes 187

Index 257

Reading Group Guide

1. In the prologue of The Sirens of Mars, the author writes, “The story of Mars is also a story about Earth: how we’ve sought another stirring of life in the universe, and what that search has come to mean. . . . Mars has been a blank canvas. And tenderly, our human seeking has rushed to fill it” (12–13). How does the story of Mars and Mars exploration reflect the story of Earth? Do you think Mars is still a “blank canvas” today? Why or why not?

2. Throughout the book, the author weaves in stories from her own life, painting an image of a young girl, and later a young woman, perennially intrigued by the same thing: space, the stars, and Mars. Why do you think this was so arresting to her, even as a child? Have you had a similar guiding star in your life, something you constantly turn to with wonder and awe?

3. The Mariner 4 mission was focused on gathering images of Mars that would be far more powerful than the best telescopic observations of the time. The author writes, “Like Martin Luther insisting on a direct relationship with God, the imaging eliminated the need for an interpreter” (10). What do you think is gained, for scientists or the general public, in having this direct relationship with the planet?

4. Once the Mariner 4 transmitted its images of Mars, it revealed that the surface of the planet was covered in craters—indicating that Mars was likely “dead.” The media and the world reacted in disappointment. “Upon seeing the pictures, Lyndon Johnson sighed, ‘It may be—it may just be—that life as we know it . . . is more unique than many have thought’” (18). Why do you think it was so disappointing to learn that there was no life currently on Mars? What does the idea of life being “unique” to Earth invoke in you?

5. The author frequently describes her relationship with her career and her craft via religious metaphor, explaining that it felt “holy” to be present in Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab or writing how it feels to worship her scientific pursuits. Why do you think the author uses religion to describe her passion?

6. Discuss the story of David McKay, the geologist who studied ALH84001 in the 1990s and determined that the slice of rock contained evidence of life on Mars. Only a year after publishing his groundbreaking study, his arguments had been largely abandoned by the scientific community and he found himself under immense stress. Consider the fact that any day, new evidence can be discovered that may entirely discredit a person’s work—or, as the author says: “The collapse of an abiding belief is always just one flight, one finding, one image, away” (35). How do you think scientists are able to cope with this ever-shifting landscape in their field? How would you cope in this kind of environment?

7. During the author’s sophomore year of college, she attended a presentation by MIT professor Maria Zuber. Partway through the talk, she realized that this was the first time she had heard another woman give a presentation on planetary science. Discuss what Dr. Zuber’s and the author’s experiences may be like, being women in such a male-dominated field. What factors might contribute to there being fewer women in fields like planetary science? What do you think the author’s colleagues could do to help ease some of the difficulties of being the sole woman, or one of the sole women, on the job? Is there anyone in your life in a similar situation?

8. The author mentions that Dr. Zuber was a major inspiration to her when she was a young student. Why do you think the author found Dr. Zuber to be inspiring? Do you have someone in your life that you can look up to like this? Why do you find them to be inspiring?

9. On a trip to Hawaii for a geoscience class in college, the author and her classmates visited a volcano. There she encountered a fern growing amongst the solid lava and she was utterly transfixed by the plant. She writes, “that fern on the volcano was even more striking up there by itself, all alone. It was just so impossibly triumphant. . . . Huddled under a rock, growing against the odds, that fern stood for all of us” (100). Do you agree, that human beings are like that sole fern within a seemingly desolate landscape? Why or why not?

10. In reading The Sirens of Mars, were you attracted to any of the scientists’ life stories in particular? If yes, whose story interested you most? Why?

11. The birth of the author’s first child and the landing of the Curiosity rover occurred nearly simultaneously in August of 2012. Throughout the first year of her son’s life, she follows the updates of the mission but worries that she won’t be able to “catch up” with her colleagues. Discuss this tension between professional and personal ambition. Why do you think this tension is felt so acutely by women? Do you think there is a point at which individuals have to choose one over the other? Why or why not?

12. Why are humans constantly in search of other life in the universe, including on Mars? Why is the planet a “siren” to humans, like the title of the book suggests? What is at stake in this search? After reading The Sirens of Mars, do you feel it is likely that evidence of other living organisms will be discovered in our lifetimes?

13. At various points in the book, the author grapples with the underlying meaning of studying planets for evidence of life. She presents several viewpoints, at one moment asking, “What if it was pointless? . . . Would any of it matter against the backdrop of an empty cosmos?” (133). Later, representing another point of view, she argues the search for life in other worlds is “the search for infinity, the search for evidence that our capacious universe might hold life elsewhere, in a different place or at a different time or in a different form” (179). Consider these two viewpoints: the first that our efforts are futile, and the second that our efforts are representative of a greater hope. Where do you fall on this spectrum of thought? Do you find the search for life futile or hopeful?

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