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Mission to Mars


Astrobiologist Christopher McKay has been studying Mars for years and is now getting a Nevada Medal for his efforts.

Life on Mars.

For more than thirty years the prospect has thrilled Christopher McKay, a NASA astrobiologist who is part of the Curiosity Mars Rover team seeking signs of microscopic life on the desert planet.

McKay also works closely with UNLV’s Desert Research Institute, which will honor him April 30 with the Nevada Medal, the state’s highest scientific honor.

McKay told KNPR’s State of Nevada he became interested in Mars in the 1970s when Viking landed on the red planet.

“I had a sudden transition into being interested in space and astronomy,” he said. “It had dominated everything I’ve done ever since.”

One of McKay’s areas of study is terraforming, or the actual transformation of a planet so it becomes more hospitable to humans. A notion popular in science fiction books and movies, McKay said it would also be possible in reality, especially on Mars.

“The key problem in making Mars habitable is warming up the planet,” he said. “Well, we know how to warm up a planet; we’re doing it on Earth.”

But there would be ethical considerations. If another form of life is found on Mars, should Earthlings move in and take over? Or should it try to foster and grow that life, while leaving the planet untouched?

“If we find (another type of life on Mars), then I would say we do not send Earth life there at all,” McKay stressed. “Instead, we try to encourage life there to grow and spread and become rich and diverse … Any indigenous life on Mars should have first call.”

McKay bristles at the notion that we terraform Mars so that in one day becomes an escape route for humankind.

“I have no tolerance for the view that Mars is a lifeboat and that we should go there after we’ve wrecked the earth,” he said. “Maintaining the Earth is essential; ruining the Earth is not an option.”

And if life is found on Mars, McKay believes those on Earth would take it in stride, even the fervently religious.

“Religions are pretty robust,” he said. “I don’t see why life anywhere else would be inconsistent with any religion.”

But it would be telling, McKay added, about what lies within the rest of our galaxy.

“It would tell us life is common, the universe is full of life and life on Earth is not a freak accident.”

(Editor's note: This story originally ran in April 2015)

Christopher McKay, astrobiologist, NASA

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.