Accusations of conspiracies and alien coverups come with the territory when your career is about space exploration. But when Kenneth Farley, a project scientist for the NASA Mars 2020 mission, attended the space subcommittee hearing of the House Science Committee on July 13, he may have been a little surprised to be quizzed about the possibility of an alien civilization on Mars, not by a curious armchair astronomer, but by a sitting member of Congress.
"You have indicated that Mars was totally different thousands of years ago," said California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who went on to ask: "Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?"
Outside of the hearing, this question likely would have been met with a confused chuckle, but Farley, who works at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) responded politely, yet firmly: "So the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago."
To which the congressman said, "Well, yes," as if he realized thousands of years was a mere hiccup in geological time.
Farley pushed on: "And, um, there would be ... there's no evidence that, uh, I'm aware of—"
Rohrabacher cut in and tried to clarify his argument, saying: "Would you rule that out? See, there's some people ... well, anyway."
"I would say that is extremely unlikely," Farley replied, respectfully.
Skip to 1:26:00 in the embedded YouTube video below to hear Rohrabacher pose this question.
The exchange ended with the usual pleasantries that would be expected of a committee hearing, but it was a strange digression that left a few unsettling questions. Particularly, why would a sitting lawmaker (who has a part in ensuring NASA is funded by the federal government) entertain the idea that an alien civilization could be supported by the red planet's inhospitable environment in recent history? Also, what did he mean by "there's some people"?
A very quick perusal of NASA's Mars exploration website would reveal the incredible range of science that has been accrued over the years. Mars is a dry and barren place, and it has been for hundreds of millions to billions of years. If there was life on the red planet, it would have been the most basic form of life and nothing more complex than single-celled bacteria.
And no, there is absolutely no evidence that there was ever any complex life (let alone a civilization) on Mars. The very idea harks back to a time when humanity started observing the tiny red globe through blurry astronomical observations captured by the first telescopes.
First vividly described by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, the famed Italian astronomer carried out a series of observations of Mars when the planet was at opposition (i.e., when viewed from Earth, the Martian surface was fully illuminated by the sun). Schiaparelli described the discovery of a vast transportation system on the red planet – a network he called canali, or "channels" in English – evidence of a Martian civilization.
Schiaparelli's work inspired many astronomers to follow up, including American astronomer Percival Lowell who theorized that the network was a complex irrigation system used to supply a Martian population. Alas, much of the detail that was eventually "mapped" by Lowell and others was largely imaginary and as telescope optics improved, the Martian canali hypothesis began to erode. In 1965, when NASA's Mariner 4 captured the first up-close observations of the alien world, any idea of complex alien life quickly vaporized. Mariner 4 found Mars to be barren, with an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth's, covered with dusty craters and no global magnetic field.
Now, several space agencies have an armada of robots orbiting and roving the planet and, although there's exciting geological evidence that ancient Mars used to be a lot wetter than it is now, Mars has been extremely inhospitable for a very, very long time.
So, when a member of congress quizzes a scientist about an idea that may have been de rigueur over a century ago but has since been completely overturned by the advance of science, education and exploration, one has to ask: Where is he getting his information?
The only people discussing the possibility of alien beings roaming the dusty surface of Mars are conspiracy theorists who see extraterrestrial faces in strange-looking rocks, but it's worth noting that there is a worrying uptick of anti-science sentiment in the U.S., which is being seen as mainstream opinion, when it's actually complete bunk.
Recently, conspiracy website Infowars drew NASA's ire by reporting that the U.S. space agency had been sending child slaves to Mars. So, perhaps, that's where one congressman gets his news and what he meant by "some people."