Why They Sent the Curiosity Rover to Mars
Now that everyone has completed a couple of days worth of exchanging high fives over NASA's (technically very impressive) success in landing the Curiosity rover on Mars' frigid surface, maybe it's time for a colder appraisal of what this mission is really about. We'll all wait with interest to see what Curiosity can discover about the ancient past of Mars, but satisfying such simple curiosity is not the rover's true purpose.
As media coverage has uniformly noted, this is about finding evidence of past or even present life, or at least the "ingredients" of life. As if the mere presence of such ingredients would tell you anything about whether life in fact ever existed there. I had the ingredients of many a fine and healthful homemade meal in our refrigerator last night, yet I ate takeout for dinner.
Now that it has reached Mars, Curiosity ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life -- or might even still harbor life today. Far larger than earlier rovers, Curiosity is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. It is to spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater it landed in, looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions friendly for life.Get this:
Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Curiosity and many other planetary missions, said it was well worth the money and compared the night's exhilaration to an adventure movie.An adventure movie? That's the motivation? I don't think so -- and if you doubt me, take note of the speaker: Dr. Elachi of NASA's JPL, an organization whose own scientific culture and seething bias against intelligent design we've documented here at great length in the context of the David Coppedge case.
"This movie cost you less than seven bucks per American citizen, and look at the excitement we got," Dr. Elachi exulted.
Make no mistake, NASA has committed $2.5 billion to this little project in large part to satisfy a need in the culture of Big Science -- a culture that extends far beyond the professional ranks of actual scientists -- for validation of a particular worldview. In that worldview, life arises and evolves spontaneously -- it must do so -- reflecting no purpose or design, given a handful of (not especially elevated) ingredients and enough time.
In this Darwinian picture, life is nothing special. Countless men and women stake the meaning of their own lives, or rather the meaning they imagine and invest in their lives, on this idea. Yet two empirical problems intrude. First, the more science learns about the inner space of the cell with its "machinery" (for want of a better word), the more profoundly special life appears to be. Second, the Darwinian view requires, since life is so prosaic, that it should have arisen all around the cosmos, in intelligent and other forms, and probably in our own solar system too other than on Earth alone. Yet persistent efforts by SETI to detect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence have conspicuously failed.
Turning from these discouraging data, NASA offers hope in the form of Curiosity and its mission. To shore up a beleaguered philosophical perspective, Darwinian materialists would be delighted -- no, tremendously relieved -- by the discovery of past or present Martian microbes. Failing that, they would receive news that life's "ingredients" have been found on Mars with reverent gratitude.
Intelligent design would not be troubled by Curiosity's uncovering Martian life. Some theologians might or might not find such a thing problematic -- go ask them if you like -- but ID is not theology. All the evidence we need to make the case for ID is right here on Earth, and more is revealed every week. See what Casey wrote here just this morning in the context of molecular machines. This stuff comes up all the time. It would not be changed one iota by anything recovered on Mars.
By contrast, Darwin's believers must at some level register that not only does the public resist their arguments, but the evidence is resistant as well. The case for unguided Darwinian evolution isn't deepening. It's not getting any stronger. Hence the excitement about a new hoped-for source of confirmation -- on another planet! Broadly speaking, they sent Curiosity to Mars in an effort, however doomed, to refute intelligent design.
Image credit: "Cheers for Curiosity," NASA.