It Came From Outer Space

When scientists at the Johnson Space Center thought they had found signs of life in a Martian rock, it was good news for NASA, Bill Clinton, Hollywood, the tabloids–and even Dick Morris’ favorite call girl.

November 1996By Comments

THE FOUR-POUND ROCK CAME TO US free of charge, a gift from the heavens, hurtling through the atmosphere and plummeting to Earth without the aid of astronauts, space stations, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Before that time it had existed placidly for more than four billion years as part of the surface of the planet Mars, oblivious as the climate shifted from balmy to harsh, as the water that once flowed freely mysteriously vanished, as meteorites bombarded the planet and fractured the ground. At some point, a signal event occurred: A particularly violent meteorite collision launched the rock into space, where it floated, ignored and unimpeded, for 16 million years. Then came another signal event: The rock succumbed to the inescapable pull of Earth’s gravity. Glowing from the heat of its descent, the rock formed a thin shell around its inner core, protecting its history within.

It landed in what is for meteorites the neighborhood of choice: Antarctica, the pristine, sterile, keep-to-yourself continent. There the rock lay for 13,000 quiet years. Having missed the era of dinosaurs, it now remained profoundly anonymous during the creation of cave paintings and the construction of the pyramids, during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the two world wars, and Elvis. And then, with the crunching of snow boots on a jagged ice field in 1984, the rock had its first contact with humanity.

It was picked up on a routine meteorite-gathering expedition by a NASA scientist who was drawn to its luminous green cast, an attraction that owed everything to her green-tinted sun goggles. It was flown back to the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it was wrongly identified as a diogenite—an asteroid fragment—and sequestered in a nitrogen-enhanced cabinet when it wasn’t being examined. No one except a few NASA planetary scientists (scholars who devote their lives to the study of planets) paid the rock much mind until 1993, when an old NASA hand who happened to be one of the world’s experts on diogenites found it troubling. He ran a few tests, scratched his head, and ran a few more. The rock was similar to a diogenite, but it wasn’t a diogenite. In fact, its chemical characteristics resembled those of only eleven other rocks on Earth, all of which, science had determined, came from the same place: Mars.

As word of the discovery spread, and as other scientists confirmed the finding—gases extracted from the rock were compatible with tests of the Martian atmosphere done by the Viking spacecraft in 1976—the rock’s eons of obscurity came to an abrupt end. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the rock: scientists in London, scientists in California, scientists in the Johnson Space Center’s Building 31, where some of the country’s top planetary scientists work on the government payroll. Researchers would request a gram of it and be given a tenth of a gram because the rock had become precious and irreplaceable; normally voluble colleagues became unusually silent and secretive once they got their hands on it. For twenty or so years the search for life on Mars had essentially been abandoned because Viking had found no signs of life there. Now this rock’s chemical composition gave off enticing hints that Viking, which had analyzed only the planet’s soil, had missed something—or had not known where to look.

And so this rock was launched on another trajectory, one that would propel it from NASA’s labs to the White House, one that would have it serve the needs of everyone from NASA scientists and brass to presidential candidates, network news reporters, and even one very shrewd Washington, D.C., prostitute. Some people hoped the rock would be the biggest thing since Copernicus. Some people hoped it would unlock the secrets of the universe, that it would prove that we are not alone. It might, some people hoped, tell us who we are.

But maybe, in a strange way, it had already done that.

WE DID NOT GO LOOKING FOR LIFE—life found us,” David McKay would say in mid-September 1996, but that wasn’t exactly true. Almost from the moment he first heard of the rock at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), he had known what its potential was, but as a scientist he was still hedging his bets. Now he was being heralded worldwide as the mild-mannered leader of the NASA team that had announced in August that they had possibly—the qualifier was most assuredly his—discovered life on Mars. He had testified before myriad government subcommittees, spoken with nearly every reporter on the planet, cooperated with a Discovery Channel documentary on his team’s research produced by Walter Cronkite, and begun to realize that he would not be deluged by the typhoon of scientific criticism he had anticipated. Even so, McKay wasn’t letting success go to his head.

He was sixty, white-haired, and bespectacled, a tall man with a hurried gait and the stooped posture of a dedicated microscopist. Before the Mars rock came into his life, caution and conservatism had allowed him to develop an admirable if not spectacular reputation in the field of planetary science; a Rice University graduate, he had been recruited during the glory days of the Apollo program to teach geology to the first astronauts headed to the moon. Since then McKay had written more than three hundred technical papers, received numerous professional honors, and reached the top of his division’s pay scale at the JSC; as of 1994 he was financially secure and happily married with three daughters, two of them grown. He was not, in short, the kind of man who would be tempted to risk throwing it all away. But then he heard about the Mars rock.

The reclassification from a diogenite to a Martian meteorite had made the rock the star of the 1994 Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Clear Lake. Its presence there was fortuitous. Though the desire to explore other planets was deep and abiding in the popular culture—by 1995, four of the top 25 highest-grossing films of all time were about outer space—the scientific community’s enthusiasm was inversely proportional. At best it had lost interest in searching for life on Mars; at worst it viewed the goal with disdain. But the search for life on other planets had always been at least in part a search for the origins of life on Earth. With the dispiriting Viking results and the shrinking funds for space exploration, the action had moved back home. Microfossils, nanobacteria—they were the ticket now. Encountering and analyzing these tiny terrestrial particles might more easily reveal our beginnings. Who needed Mars? 

The answer, of course, was David McKay. As secure as he was, he was also in danger of becoming fossilized himself. The chance of finding life at NASA had become almost as slim as finding it on Mars. Once known as a center of scientific innovation, the institution now featured a space shuttle of dubious value, an entrenched bureaucracy, and an aging work force, of which McKay was a part. Since Apollo, NASA’s successes had been few and its failures had been brutally displayed before the public: the Challenger explosion, the rocky start of the $6 billion Hubble telescope, the proposed space station that had become little more than a perpetual dog-and-pony show. The mothballed rockets that lay on their sides at the JSC’s sun-bleached campus in Clear Lake seemed painful metaphors for NASA’s downsized, dysfunctional era, when poor morale was manifested in peeling linoleum floors, dim lights, and in at least one building, pay phones shrouded in cobwebs. McKay had agreeably shifted from division to division, had amenably won and then lost supervisory positions, had learned to pursue his work passionately though unobtrusively. Few expected him to be replaced upon his retirement.

One could say that David McKay was not looking for the Mars rock—the rock found him. But something about it made him feel an eagerness he had not felt since he held the first moon rocks in his hands. The Mars rock represented a gamble of cosmic proportions: If he was right about it, he could make one of the most important discoveries of modern times; if he was wrong, he could bring ruination not just upon himself but upon the institution that had nurtured and supported him for almost thirty years. “I’m going to get a piece of that meteorite and look for signs of life in it,” McKay told his wife, Mary Fae. Mary Fae, who admired and respected her husband, thought, “Sure you are.”

THE PLANETARY SCIENTISTS OF BUILDING 31 were nothing if not resourceful. With space exploration at a virtual standstill, many of McKay’s colleagues had turned their attention to meteorites—rocks substantially cheaper to acquire. For that reason, the Mars rock had become quite popular by the end of 1993. One day, the man who had saved it from misclassification, David Mittlefehldt, wandered across the hall to tell a colleague about something he’d found inside it. “I’ve got some neat material,” he told Chris Romanek, a trim, athletic 35-year-old completing a research fellowship at the JSC. “Take a look.” Romanek had received his doctorate in geochemistry from Texas A&M, but the scarcity of work had made him more than willing to take a job outside his field, learning about meteorites as he went along.

What the two men saw that day was something strange—tiny orange-brown patches that, to the naked but well-trained eye, resembled bits of carbonates. On Earth, carbonates include marble, limestone, and other materials formed near water. Scientists had long suspected that Mars once had water because of its topography—dried-up riverbeds and deltas, for instance—but they never had a way to prove it. Carbonates had never been found there, nor had anyone found such traces in NASA’s other Mars rocks; they were billions of years younger, after all, and had come from the period in which the planet’s water had already disappeared. Romanek allowed himself a momentary fantasy. Maybe these carbonate globules, as he and Mittlefehldt called them, had been formed when water flowed through cracks in the rock, leaving tiny deposits behind. Maybe, with the right tests, the rock could be made to reveal its past.

Once Mittlefehldt and Romanek satisfied themselves that the brown spots were indeed bits of carbonate and that they were indeed Martian—the carbonates were dated at 3.6 billion years, which meant they had been formed long before the rock left Mars—the scientists wanted to determine the temperature at which they had been formed. They teamed up with Romanek’s mentor, another NASA scientist by the name of Everett Gibson, an expert in meteorites. Gibson, 53, was paunchy and mustachioed, a man who seemed constantly amused by the humor of whatever situation he found himself in. This project, however, was no joke. The researchers wanted to investigate the chemical, or isotopic, attributes that would reveal the temperature at which these carbonates had been formed. With the help of some British scientists, they ran the numbers, and the results left them astonished: The carbonate globules had been formed at somewhere between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius, temperatures similar to those found on the surface of Earth—temperatures, though no one would say it out loud, capable of sustaining life.

In 1992 Romanek had attended a lecture by a University of Texas sedimentologist named Robert Folk, who had discovered tiny fossils in pieces of limestone, fossils far smaller than had been seen before—some as small as one one-thousandth of the width of a human hair. Other researchers had discovered not only that life could exist at a much smaller size than had been previously imagined but also that it is far more tenacious, thriving, for example, in boiling-hot vents at the bottom of the ocean. These were the discoveries that were galvanizing the scientific community. Now Romanek wondered: Since the temperatures on Earth and Mars had once been similar, could the same kind of tiny fossils found in limestone—that is, evidence of life—be hiding in the orange-brown patches dotting the interior of the Martian rock?

WORKING ON HIS OWN, DAVID MCKAY had been thinking along similar lines. He estimated that he had looked at more than 50,000 rocks in his life, and all he would allow himself to say about this one was that it was “suspicious” or “interesting.” In between his inspections of lunar dust, he would drag out his Mars slides, losing himself for hours in the caves and canyons of the rock as revealed by a microscope. Like a sixteenth-century explorer, McKay had encountered a new world, as vast as it was infinitesimal. But instead of a wooden ship, he navigated a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which magnifies up to 30,000 times. What intrigued McKay in particular were tubular shapes—masses of them, sometimes—that he had never seen before. They might have once been bits of clay, but they might also have once been bits of organic matter. For the moment, he had no way of knowing.

In the summer of 1994, Chris Romanek and Everett Gibson appeared in McKay’s office. McKay knew Gibson well, of course; they were contemporaries and had worked on the moon rocks together. Where McKay was taciturn and cautious, Gibson, who sometimes spoke of himself in the third person, was loquacious and adventurous. What he and Romanek proposed was consistent with his character.

They wanted to start searching for fossils in the Martian meteorite’s carbonate globules. Romanek explained that he had already made sections of the rock and was viewing them on the SEM. But he had worked on the SEM for only a year, and Gibson admitted that he too lacked expertise in interpreting the images the machine produced. They had come to McKay, Gibson said, because he had the experience in microscopy they needed. McKay looked at their pictures slowly, and then he looked at them again. What he saw were the same tubes he had seen before, structures that seemed frustratingly beyond the scope of recognition. Yes, McKay agreed, these were worthy of additional work. That day, the three men made two decisions: They would work together as a team—and they wouldn’t tell anyone else what they were doing. People would think they were nuts. Or worse, they might try to steal their idea.

BUT THEY NEEDED SOMEONE ELSE. Kathie Thomas-Keprta, McKay’s colleague of twelve years, had expertise with a different kind of microscope: the transmission electron microscope, or TEM. While the SEM could explore only surfaces, the recently developed TEM could pass an electron beam through the carbonates and reveal their mineral composition, in turn possibly unlocking more of the rock’s secrets. (By way of analogy, a scientist trying to identify a loaf of bread would use the SEM to examine the crust and the TEM to reveal sugar and salt crystals.)

The only problem was Thomas-Keprta herself. The blond, willowy scientist was 37 and an authority in the esoteric arena of cosmic dust, which is a by-product of comets and asteroids. Once, a person of her talents would have been working for NASA full time, but she was classified as contract help—a glorified temp—on loan from Lockheed-Martin. Weary of having to justify the significance of her research, Thomas-Keprta was ready for a change. But that didn’t mean she wanted to embarrass herself before the entire scientific community. “We have a project that needs your talents,” McKay began after escorting her to his office. With Gibson present, he asked whether Thomas-Keprta would be interested in taking a closer look at the carbonates in the Martian meteorite. They showed her their strange SEM pictures. They suggested, gently, that she would be looking for, well, fossils. Thomas-Keprta looked from McKay to Gibson and back again. Were they serious? “Oh, no,” she told them. She was much too busy. That night she went home and told her husband, “These guys are nuts.”  But McKay was her boss, and along with Gibson, he was feeding her samples to examine. She began to find that more and more of her time was taken up in the darkened room with the enormous microscope, exploring the grains on the edges of the rock’s tiny orange-brown carbonates without knowing where she was headed or what, exactly, she was looking for.

THOUGH NO ONE WOULD SAY SO, they thought they might be getting close to finding signs of life by the winter of 1994. They had water, they had hospitable temperatures, and they had microscopic pictures they thought were intriguing if not conclusive. But as planetary scientists and NASA survivors, they knew they couldn’t go public without getting the blessing of a real expert in the field they had now entered, the world of microfossils. They chose an acquaintance and colleague of Gibson’s, paleobiologist William Schopf at the University of California at Los Angeles, a writer of textbooks, winner of prizes, and the current authority on microfossils. Schopf had to be coaxed into taking the trip to Clear Lake. Gibson told him only that they had found some unusual structures in a meteorite; he was careful, in fact, to avoid the phrase “life on Mars.” Schopf came, looked at a few pictures, and shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t see anything that suggested signs of life. What did he need? they asked. Schopf was polite but firm: The scientific community had standards for proving such a hypothesis. McKay’s team knew where the rock was from, and they knew that the carbonates were about a billion years younger than the rock. But now, Schopf told them, they had to produce evidence of cells and their by-products. Without such proof,  they would never get their work published. “It was,” said McKay with typical reserve, “a setback.”

It wasn’t enough to have found carbonates within the rock; now they had to examine the molecules within the carbonates. Carbon, as every schoolchild learns, is the building block of living things. But it is also found in countless inorganic substances. If their rock was composed solely of inorganic substances, the game was over. Worse, the JSC team lacked the technology to analyze molecular structures themselves—NASA’s days as a technical giant were long gone. There was only one place in the country with the expertise to handle this problem, and that was the laboratory of Stanford chemistry professor Richard Zare, who in 1985 had developed a “laser shooting gallery” that could analyze single molecules. Fortunately, Thomas-Keprta had a friend who worked for Zare. She chipped off a few more pieces of the rock and sent them to Stanford. Once they arrived, the chips were bombarded with two kinds of lasers; the scientists then captured the gas emissions and analyzed the results. As if to order, the Stanford scientists—who quickly joined the team—found just what McKay’s group had hoped for: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. For a few minutes, the JSC team allowed themselves to be jubilant. PAHs often arise from the decomposition of living matter. Then they admitted the truth to themselves: PAHs can also arise from inorganic substances like truck exhaust or air pollution. They had to be sure that the sample had not been contaminated at the JSC lab and that the PAHs had not come from snowmobile exhaust in Antarctica. More tests were run, and once again the results were exhilarating. PAHs that arise from pollution tend to cluster on or near the surface; the Mars rock’s PAHs were 500 microns below the surface—far enough inside the rock to have predated snowmobiles by billions of years. These PAHs had to be indigenous to the planet Mars. 

The team was so excited that they drafted a paper for presentation at the next Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, in March 1995. They didn’t say they had found life on Mars; they said they had found PAHs on Mars. A Houston Chronicle reporter, however, understood the significance of the discovery and cornered Thomas-Keprta after she presented the paper in Clear Lake. Are you saying, the reporter asked, that there is life on Mars? “No,” Thomas-Keprta replied. “Absolutely not.”

McKay was relieved by her answer. He knew, of course, that the results were premature. He was haunted by the memory of the cold-fusion fiasco, in which a major discovery was heralded in the popular press and then excoriated by the scientific community. David McKay—and NASA—could not afford that.

THE TEAM MEMBERS CHECKED AND RECHECKED THEMSELVES. They ran more tests for contamination and found none; they examined other Antarctic meteorites for similarities and came up empty-handed. They met and discussed, and they read. In March 1995 they lost Chris Romanek—his fellowship had expired, and NASA had no money to offer him full-time work. They were close to an answer, but not close enough. McKay had heard about an extremely powerful state-of-the-art SEM in NASA’s engineering division, one that could magnify from 100,000 to 150,000 times. It had been developed in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster to detect tiny cracks in rockets. Researchers don’t like to share their equipment any more than they like to share information, but McKay had seniority and an abundance of goodwill. Engineering gave him access to the machine.

Gibson was present when McKay put a sample of the rock in the microscope and began to roam its surface. The pictures projected onto the machine’s video screens were so clear that the men froze in their seats. At this magnification, the wormlike shapes before them looked startlingly familiar. That night, Gibson could not sleep. McKay had printed a photograph of the slide and left it in his office for his thirteen-year-old daughter, Jill, to find.

“What does that look like to you?” he asked casually.

“Bacteria,” she said, in that youthful, know-it-all tone.

IT WAS HARD TO KNOW WHO WAS SPENDING MORE TIME IN THE LAB in the dark: McKay, whose wife had taken to calling his colleagues when he lost track of time and worked through dinner, or Thomas-Keprta. She had found tiny mineral grains on the rims of the carbonates that struck her as odd: bits of iron oxide, known as magnetite, and bits of iron sulfite, known as pyrotite. Though both substances existed in other meteorites she had investigated, these were much closer together, sometimes almost touching. In her experience, that did not make sense. That was because her experience was as a geologist, not a microbiologist. Upon further reading, Thomas-Keprta realized the mineral bits were in a state of disequilibrium, nature’s clue that they were by-products of living things.

Then, in early 1996, Thomas-Keprta found something else: mineral grains inside the carbonates that she could identify by their shape and chemistry as gregite. She got McKay and another colleague on the phone. “Come and take a look,” she said breathlessly. This time, she knew instantly what she had found. Ninety-nine percent of the time, gregite in that size range is a by-product of bacteria.

Later that evening, she stepped out into the air certain that she had accomplished the impossible. “This could be the coolest day of my life,” she thought, “and there’s no band playing. Where is everybody?”

She called home. “Mom,” she said, “this could be something really big.”

“Sweetheart, that’s great,” her mother said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

“No, really,” Kathie Thomas-Keprta said.

THE TEAM HAD FOUR LINES OF PROOF, NO ONE OF WHICH COULD STAND ALONE but which were powerful taken together. They had the necessary temperature for life, they had both its organic and mineral by-products, and they had structures that looked uncannily like living things on Earth. Now their biggest problem was no longer scientific but political: They could be scooped. Schopf’s visit had caused some curiosity. So had the paper Thomas-Keprta had presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The team had spent too much time exchanging glances in meetings, remaining mute whenever the topic of the Mars rock came up. Thomas-Keprta had submitted a paper to the March 1996 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference about her work on the TEM—blandly entitled “Microanalysis of Unique Fine-Grained Minerals Within the Martian Meteorite ALH84001”—when it occurred to the team that presentation of the paper would prevent them from publishing their complete results in any well-regarded scientific journal. Such publications have an “us first” rule: They want exclusive access to important discoveries and are not interested in reprinting information. Thomas-Keprta, on the advice of Zare and McKay, pulled her paper from the conference. Too many scientists would remember her 1995 presentation on the PAHs and put two and two together.

The JSC team members, so careful for so long, were ready to tell their story. They began drafting a paper for the prestigious journal Science. Then, there was just one more thing to do. David McKay had to tell his JSC supervisor what they had been working on for the past year and a half.

IF CAUTION COMES NATURALLY TO NASA SCIENTISTS, it is part of the protective coloration of NASA bureaucrats. “We’d better be right,” division chief Douglas Blanchard thought to himself when he heard McKay’s news. Science, too, was cautious. McKay knew that the cold-fusion disaster had occurred largely because the information had been released to the general populace without proper peer review. Science would provide something like an insurance policy, a responsibility the publication took seriously in this case. Though the editors typically approved manuscripts after they had been vetted by four or five outside readers, the JSC team’s paper went to nine.

The team made numerous revisions in response to the readers’ queries. They had to weasel-word this and wimp-word that—make no claims; just present the evidence, they were told—but in the end everyone had been satisfied. Though the paper’s title was a little wishy-washy—“Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic of Biogenic Activity in Martian Meteorite ALH84001”—the editors had let the authors (there were nine of them by the time the research was completed) keep their last sentence as written: “Although there are alternative explanations for each of these phenomena when taken individually, when they are considered collectively, particularly in view of their spatial association, we conclude that they are evidence of primitive life on Mars.” Science accepted the paper on April 23 and set a publication date of August 16. Though it would send the paper to five hundred reporters a week early, there was a gentleman’s agreement that its contents would not be written about before publication.

For most scientists, such confidentiality is a minor problem. For the JSC team, who worked on the public payroll, it was a little more complicated. Once Blanchard had been advised that Science had set a publication date—legitimizing the JSC team’s work as good science—he sent news of the discovery up the chain of command to Johnson Space Center director George Abbey, who hopped a plane for Washington to deliver that rarest of gifts, good news from NASA.

It was the last week in July 1996. The secret life of the Martian rock had come to an end, and its public life was just beginning.

ON JULY 30, JUST AS MCKAY WAS TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE, he got a call. It was his ever-protective secretary, Yvette Damien. The White House was on the phone, she said. Could she give them his home number?

The callers were Wes Huntress, an associate administrator for the Office of Space Science, and Dan Goldin, none other than the head of NASA. They praised the scientists’ work and discussed the contents of the paper. Then Goldin asked one last question: Were they sure this news could be kept quiet for two more weeks? Science’s publication date, it turned out, was highly advantageous to the White House. NASA could schedule a press conference that would compete with Bob Dole’s acceptance speech as the Republican nominee. The rock was no longer just an object of science. It had entered the world of politics and would soon enter the popular culture as well. It had taken on a new characteristic whose identification did not require a team of scientists: currency. Rapidly escalating currency.

Dan Goldin was a man who understood currency, which may be why, a few hours later, McKay and Gibson got another call, ordering them to Washington immediately. The two men flew up and the next day met with NASA’s public affairs division to orchestrate the rock’s debut before the American public. Mindful of the Hubble telescope problems, the PR types grilled the scientists carefully, as did Goldin, who took 27 pages of notes during a subsequent three-hour meeting. At the end of the session—heading off to brief the president’s chief of staff, his national science adviser, the vice president, and after he was awakened from his nap, the president himself—Goldin had an unusual request. “Can I give you a hug?” he asked McKay.

A trim, De Niro—esque political infighter with a tough, outer-borough accent, Goldin knew that this discovery could mean salvation for NASA. More money, better morale, a restoration of prestige. But he also knew the risks. Looking into McKay’s eyes, he asked one more question: “Are you guys sure of this?” (When Al Gore heard the news from Goldin, he would react with the same mixture of ecstasy and insecurity: “Wait a minute—our guys, government scientists, did this?”)

Flying back home, McKay began to worry. The White House, he’d been warned, was notoriously leaky, and on Saturday he was scheduled to leave town for a family vacation in Garner State Park. Mary Fae had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and nothing—not even the possibility of life on Mars—was going to get in the way. McKay calmed himself with the knowledge that he would have a NASA pager for emergencies. What could go wrong?

DICK MORRIS WAS ALSO A MAN WHO understood currency. He understood it in politics, where as Bill Clinton’s closest adviser he had engineered the president’s resurrection after the Democratic debacle of 1994. And it is safe to say that he understood the value of currency in his own life. He had, after all, begun to release bits of secret information in an attempt to impress the rather diffident prostitute he had begun meeting regularly in a $420-a-night suite at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel. He told Sherry Rowlands he was Clinton’s political strategist. He let her listen in on phone calls with the president. And, on August 2—just days after Dan Goldin’s meeting with McKay and Gibson—he told her she was one of seven people who were privy to a top military secret: Scientists had discovered life on another planet. The hooker, like most people, found the notion difficult to grasp. “Is it a bean?” she asked Morris, straining to understand the life form he was describing. “It’s more like a vegetable in a rock,” replied the man responsible for teaching the president to reduce complex issues to their simplest components.

Rowlands understood the value of currency too. Leggy, with a past that was beginning to show in the hardness around her eyes and mouth, she longed to retire from her career as a prostitute and open a house-cleaning business. When Morris came along, she saw in him an opportunity to fulfill her dreams. And so, after every session, she rushed home to make entries in her diary. The night Morris told her that life had been discovered on another planet, she garbled the facts—“He said they found proof of life on Pluto”—but she knew what she had. Even so, it wasn’t an easy sell. Rowlands called the London tabloids, and she called a reporter at the Star by the name of Richard Gooding. He was noncommittal; having just finished a story about UFOs and the movie Independence Day, he thought Rowlands was just another space case, especially when she couldn’t remember which planet Morris had told her about.

“Well, what are we exploring now?” she demanded of Gooding.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Jupiter?”

In fact, it was not until Tuesday, August 6, that Gooding realized Rowlands had been telling the truth. That was when he, along with most Americans, learned that NASA scientists had discovered evidence of life on Mars. And, more important for his purposes, it was when he discovered that he had proof of a White House scandal.

ON HIS VACATION, DAVID MCKAY hadn’t been too worried when he didn’t hear from anyone over the weekend. But by Tuesday, when his beeper remained mute, he had grown anxious. “I’d better call in,” he said to Mary Fae. What McKay learned, in short order, was that his government-issue pager didn’t work in the countryside. Worse, the story had leaked. Publicists at the Johnson Space Center had gotten calls from ABC, CNN, the BBC, and other major news outlets around the world. The CBS Evening News was threatening to report the discovery without official confirmation. Reporters, believing themselves to be on the trail of the story of the century, began interviewing each other, basing their opinions on a brief statement released by Goldin. Science had graciously capitulated by putting the article on the Internet ten days in advance of publication. On the first day, the World Wide Web site received 1.2 million hits.

To control the story, NASA had wanted to hold the press conference immediately, without McKay, but Gibson had refused to participate without him. Now it was scheduled for Wednesday, and McKay had less than 24 hours to get to Washington. “It was out of our hands,” Gibson would say later, his eyes still wide with awe. “It was being determined at higher pay scales than ours.” Mary Fae and the McKays’ three daughters drove McKay to the airport in San Antonio. He wore his Apollo tie. At a rehearsal for the press conference, McKay told the anecdote about his daughter’s discovering the “bacteria.” The public affairs people winced. They were afraid the story would make the scientists look foolish.

Since the end of the Apollo program, attendance at NASA press conferences had shrunk to a handful of reporters. This one was different, though; at one point, Gibson counted 31 cameras. He and McKay sat down at a long table with other team members, and a section of the rock was placed in front of them. The photographers descended like a swarm of bats. And then Goldin got up to speak.

Once, NASA’s successes had been easy to convey—brave astronauts went into space, and then they came home safely—but the importance of this story was harder to explain. After all, it was only a story about the possibility of life on other planets, and the main character was a rock. But Goldin had to make it work; he had two Mars missions coming up, budget meetings, a president running for reelection. At least he had the popular culture on his side: The hottest movie in the country was Independence Day, and TV viewers couldn’t get enough of The X-Files. Instead of fantasy, Goldin could offer the real thing. He began by sounding the requisite notes of caution—the results were still inconclusive, there was no scientific consensus, NASA would still love these scientists no matter what—but then Dan Goldin took a breath and stepped into the sun. “We are now on a doorstep to the heavens,” he began. “What a time to be alive…”

THE ROCK WAS AN OVERNIGHT SENSATION after four billion years, allowing just about everyone to bask in its glory. President Clinton, setting off for three days of campaigning, proclaimed that the rock “speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles…If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.” Al Gore called a space summit for November. Carl Sagan weighed in (“If the results are verified, it is a turning point in human history…”), as did the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who claimed that scientists would never find intelligent life anywhere beyond Earth. On the Internet, one scholar suggested that colonizing Mars could be the answer to America’s oversupply of immigrants and unskilled labor. The marketing whizzes at Nissan considered giving out Mars candy bars with their Pathfinders, the sport utility vehicles that have the same name as an upcoming Mars mission. Robbie Score, the scientist who had found the rock in Antarctica, was profiled in People. The astronaut contingent at NASA began lobbying for manned missions. And with a $1 million investment, a Houstonian named John Styles, Jr., started a business called The Sky Is Falling in hopes of cornering the market in meteorites. (The Mars discovery did send the value of meteorites soaring, from $200 to $2,000 a gram.)

Big questions were being asked. Had life originated on Earth from just such a meteorite? Were Earthlings, in fact, Martians? Was life a fairly ordinary phenomenon throughout the universe? But much of the seriousness was eclipsed by what became, essentially, the cosmic equivalent of a summer movie tie-in campaign. “On Independence Day next year, the planet Mars will be invaded by aliens,” a Washington Post reporter wrote of a planned NASA mission. (The discovery, in fact, was mildly problematic for Hollywood. The writers for the highly developed Martians on Third Rock From the Sun had to scramble for explanations, as did movies in production. “No single-celled organisms,” trumpeted the press release for a future Warner Brothers release. “The alien invaders in Mars Attacks are the big-brained variety with a flair for ray guns and planetwide pandemonium.”)

The scientific inquisition McKay had anticipated did not materialize. His colleagues argued about the temperature and formation of the carbonates in the rock, but there seemed to be a consensus that the work commanded respect. It was, they said, an impressive beginning.

The public was another matter. Exuberance had to compete with disappointment in some quarters—wormlike shapes are a long way from John Lithgow—and even, perhaps as a result of growing anti-government sentiment, outright hostility. David McKay read his e-mail with some amazement. “Shame shame shame this is cocaine and Crayola science,” one correspondent declared, “a bunch of catch phrases and suppositions purporting to be fact.” Wrote another: “This had political expediency written all over it.” And another: “Your life on Mars story is a good example of your mistaken belief that the general public is comprised of a bunch of total idiots.” The optimism that had once fueled the American exploration of outer space, it appeared, had evaporated as surely as water on Mars.

INDEED, A MONTH AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT, the rock fell victim to the American attention span and was eclipsed by myriad events, including the fall of Dick Morris. The November space summit was moved to December. Clinton announced that he would not support an initiative to send a man to Mars by 2019. There were no plans to increase NASA’s budget appropriation.

David McKay just wanted to get back to his lab. At the press conference, Schopf had suggested that evidence of cell structure within the rock’s carbonates would serve as indisputable proof that life had existed on Mars. McKay was not too far from retirement. He had survived the hard times, but he had also held in his hands rocks that had rested on the moon, and maybe he had even discovered something more important. It was likely that the answers would not come in his lifetime, but perhaps it had been enough just to pose the question. Now he sequestered himself in an office papered with photographs of what looked like dark, lacy caves. He slapped one picture under a magnifying glass and studied it quietly. “There’s the cell wall,” he said, to no one but himself.

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