In the “current affairs” department, no other topic could be explored on this page right now. You wouldn’t think “germs” and “astronomy” would ever share the same headline or news story, but it has happened three times.
The strep on the Moon’s left side
In November 1969, the second Apollo mission successfully touched down on the west side of the Moon. In a wonderfully successful bit of navigation, the astronauts landed only a few hundred yards from where the old Surveyor lander was parked. They easily hopped over and, as planned, snipped off some of the material – foam from the camera lining – that had been on the lunar surface for two-and-a-half years. The idea was to analyze it to see what long exposure to the Moon’s hostile environment would do to earthly materials.
But the following week, back on Earth in a lab, no one was prepared for what they found: It was a streptococcus bacterium. And it was alive! After years of enduring a full vacuum, days of 220-degree Fahrenheit heat that could have boiled water and nights where the thermometer plunged to -230, this pathogen was still alive!
Two quick conclusions: (1) No wonder it’s so hard to shake a strep throat! (2) Someone messed up big-time. Everything taken to the Moon was supposed to be sterile. There weren’t supposed to be any living organisms left behind on the surface. Apparently, we Homo bewilderus cannot be trusted to visit other worlds. If it had been a “wrong” surface, we might have introduced a global disaster: a planet eventually teeming with terrestrial organisms and unknown consequences.
Our second microscope-worthy space tale is the surprisingly popular “panspermia”: the idea that life on Earth started elsewhere. By this thinking, primitive organisms that originated on some distant planet in some other solar system were blasted into space by an asteroid impact. Protected inside cracks in the rock for possibly millions of years, and maybe curling up into a protective long-term cystlike form, these germs and their “ride” landed on Earth four billion years ago, found the environment to their liking, started multiplying – and then evolution kicked in to create, ultimately, you and me. So, we are aliens.
This was the famous Antarctic meteorite whose oxygen isotope ratio proved that it had originally come from Mars. NASA chief Dan Goldin, surrounded by researchers, announced a quarter-century ago that odd stringlike formations inside the stone were the fossilized remnants of life. Life on Mars!
True, the “organism” was only germ-sized; but hey, life is life. And this story produced two major takeaways: (1) Nobody cared. All the talk about how “finding life on another world will change everything” didn’t pan out. In the days that followed, there was no major buzz, no excitement, no freakouts, no TV talk shows where anyone expressed amazement – because, apparently, if it’s not cute like an alien kitten, or a scary thing like a blobby monster with sharp teeth, we really don’t care too much about extraterrestrial life after all. (2) And after all that, Dan Goldin eventually decided that it wasn’t a living creature after all.
So, these are my Space-Germ stories. It’s the best I can offer as you read this from your self-imposed quarantine.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.