The Martian Chronicles
Issue 5, June 2000

Meet the Scientist: Dr. Chris McKay

  Dr. Chris McKay collecting data in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia  
Dr. Chris McKay collecting data in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia

Q: What are your main research interests?

A: My main research interest is in the origin of life on Earth and the possibility that life might have originated on other planets as well.


Q: How do you find a connection between all the fields of science and incorporate so much engineering and mathematics in your research?

A: Life and planets are two very big topics and understanding how life might have originated on a planet encompasses many fields of science. In terms of engineering, missions to investigate possible life on the other planets requires engineering and instrumentation work as well. ... a little bit of everything.


Q: What did you study in undergrad and grad? How did you decide what to study?

A: As an undergrad I studied physics and mechanical engineering. I think this was a good choice for me since it was a good foundation for all the broad research approaches needed for my current research.


Q: How did the Mars Underground get started? What was the group’s main goal/motivation?

A: When Viking landed on Mars in 1976 it seemed to indicate that Mars did not have life and yet had all the elements needed to support life. Motivated by Sagan’s original suggestion some years earlier of terraforming Venus, two other graduate students and I started talking about the possibility of terraforming Mars. A few years earlier I had read a small book entitled Project Icarus, about a class at MIT that had looked at the feasibility of deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. Inspired by that, I suggested we do a class project on terraforming Mars. Due to bureaucratic issues which I no longer remember I was actually listed as the instructor of this class and at the first class meeting we had more than 20 students (only one student was formally enrolled). In addition to terraforming Mars we also considered human exploration as a step toward terraforming. However we really began to take the issues of human exploration seriously when Dr. Charles Barth, the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (in which I worked), suggested that we should prepare a report on human exploration of Mars that he would take to NASA HQ.

  The Case for Mars logo  
The Case for Mars logo

Following this we became more focused on the issues of human exploration, in situ life support and the establishment of a permanent self-sufficient human settlement on Mars. At Leonard David’s suggestion and with encouragement from Stan Kent we decided to hold a conference. Originally the title of the conference was to be “The Case for Man on Mars” taken directly from a paper presented earlier by Dr. Ben Clark of Martin Marietta. However Stan insisted in a telephone conversation with me that “Man” was not acceptable. In a rush and having no good alternative we just turned it into “The Case for Mars”. The first Case for Mars conference was largely organized by Tom Meyer and Carol Stoker. Carter Emmart drew the logo based the patch that appeared on the space suit of the astronauts on the cover of the book “The Earth is Near” which I had just read. Penny Boston edited the proceedings.

The first conference was successful and several people suggested that we create an organization. But this had not been our goal and we steadfastly refused to organize or become official. Leonard David then coined the term the “Mars Underground” to refer to the Case for Mars and its associated activities.


Q: How did your involvement in the Mars Underground impact your life and career?

A: When I first became interested in the question of terraforming Mars I thought it would be an interesting class project but not more. I would have been surprised if I was told that I would end up working on the subject of Mars and the question of past present and future life on Mars for the many years to come.


Q: What is the connection between the Mars Underground and the Mars Society?

A: Dr. Robert Zubrin came to one of the early Case for Mars meetings. He was a young engineer with bright ideas. A few years ago he wrote a book entitled The Case for Mars in which he outlined his plan for human missions to Mars. This book became a best seller and many people suggested to Bob that he form a Society to push for human exploration of Mars. The Mars Underground had never been a formal organization or had any intention of becoming one. So for all intents and purposes the Mars Society that Bob formed took over the activities of the Mars Underground.


Q: What do you think is unique about the Mars Society compared to other space advocacy groups?

A: The Mars Society is unique in that is has the potential not just to advocate for missions but to bring the technical and scientific expertise together to make missions possible.


Mars '96  
Mars '96

Q: What Mars missions have you been involved in and how?

A: I have been involved in analysis of data from every Mars missions from Mariner 9 onwards. However I have only had direct involvement with one instrument (MOX) that was built for the Russian Mars’96 mission (which failed).


Q: What is an experiment that you think should be part of the upcoming robotic missions?

  Sending a flower to Mars  
Sending a flower to Mars
Art: Shrox

A: A goal for the near-term robotic program should be to send a seed to Mars and to grow it into a full plant - perhaps a flower - using to the extent possible the sunlight, soil, and nutrients available in the martian environment. The carbon dioxide and water for the plant would be obtained from the martian atmosphere and the natural sunlight on Mars would provide for photosynthesis. Because of the lower pressure on Mars the plant would need to be in a small pressure vessel - its own little space suit.

A clever design of this miniature greenhouse would allow light to enter and, true to its name, provide greenhouse warmth during the day. At night the growth module may need to draw on heat generated by the main spacecraft to keep the plant warm. The plant’s growth and flowering would be monitored using the lander camera. Initial designs by groups at the University of Colorado and JPL have shown that such a unit can be constructed. We could send life to Mars on the next lander.