Q&A: Bill Nye on Mars Exploration

Tonight Show with Larry Wilmore

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore

Bill Nye the Science Guy made a recent appearance on an episode of the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, where he discussed NASA’s recent discovery of water on Mars and its potential to harbor alien life. But the Nightly Show panel was less than enthused about the topic, claiming neither to care nor to understand what Bill Nye was talking about.

“Why would I be excited about Mars? I’m barely excited about Earth,” said Ricky Valez, Nightly Show Contributor. Comedian Michelle Buteau chimed in “Americans? We don’t care about what’s on Mars!” “Yes you do!” exclaimed an exasperated Bill Nye.

Astrobiology Magazine executive editor, Helen Matsos, and writer, Lindsey N. Walker, sat down with Bill Nye to ask about his on-air pummeling by the Mars-haters.

Though the Nightly Show’s comedic prerogatives effectively quashed the educational potential of the segment, it could quell neither Nye’s enthusiasm for future discoveries nor silence his opinions on recently proposed human space flight missions.

He explained to us why finding microbial life on the red planet is a reasonable and exciting possibility, where the recent NASA humans-to-Mars plan requires improvement, and how the highly-publicized Mars One mission has raised worldly interest in human space flight despite its glaring improbability of success.

Credit: Planetary Society

Credit: Planetary Society

Helen Matsos (HM): Tell me why you think you got so attacked on Larry Wilmore… Why aren’t people interested in water on Mars and how do you make people care about it?

Bill Nye (BN): “Oh I think they really do care about water on Mars, they were just trying to come up with comedic premises really fast. They sure got a lot of criticism on the electric internet- the social media- for their attitude. I think they got that criticism because most people are interested in water on mars and whether or not there are living things on another planet in our own solar system!”

Lindsey N. Walker (LW): [About discovering water on Mars and potential for life]: It’s salty, briny water. Does that mean [Martian microbes] would have to be extremophiles?

BN: Well, Here’s what I say: if there’s extremely salty briny water on Mars and there’s things living there (which is quite reasonable to me) then they don’t think of themselves, in the anthropomorphic sense, as being extremophiles. They’re just ‘philes’. They’re just alive, doing their extremely salty, briny, Martian thing. What humans think of as extremophiles is extreme relative to what we, humans, like.

[breaks into song] Hey thirty-seven-point-oh, it’s great to have you back again!

Wait.. that was 98.6 in Fahrenheit– which is 37 Celsius. And that’s normal for us, but to a super Martian microbe—a Marscrobe—it’s something else. It’s bitterly cold and super briny/salty. So, the word ‘extreme’? Meh. It’s just, I sure want to send a mission there– I imagine a robot—set up to look for microscopic life a few centimeters or meters below the soil surface in one of those gullies. And this robot has to be super sterile—cleaned — to be absolutely certain (to the extent that we can be certain) that we’re not contaminating the Martian environment. And, by the way, it’s very hard to contaminate the surface of mars– all this ultraviolet light, all these particles of the solar wind, the bitter cold, the dehydration on billion year timescales. It’s hard for us to imagine a living thing that can live on the surface of Mars. But just below the surface? How cool, or cold, would that be?

HM: What do you think about the recent finding of an ancient standing lake dating from the paleoclimate era on Mars?

BN: If you’ve never done it, I strongly encourage you to go to the Great Salt Lake. There’s a park there called the Salt Sand Beach. But there’s no water there right now it’s just this expanse of salt. For 100 km (60 miles in three out of four directions). So it’s very reasonable that there was a standing water lake on Mars and that water is seeped into the Martian surface- into the sand there—and it’s very reasonable that there’s still some water not too far below that. The same way we have underground water on Earth. And that’s a very reasonable place to look for life on Mars.

I very much want to invest my tax dollars in the search for life on Mars because I think it would change the course of human history in the best way.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

HM: What do you think of the plan that was recently presented to congress about human space flight to Mars?

BN: The plan presented to congress by NASA is unfocused at best. And as my colleagues like to say: ‘it’s a plan to come up with an idea for a concept.’ It lacks specifics. It lacks specifying which piece of hardware will do which part of the mission to send humans to mars. And in contrast to that, or along with that, in supplemental to that, is the Planetary Society—some disclosure- I’m the Chief Executive Officer thereof—started by Carl Sagan—we had a workshop. We brought together 70 experts from around the world to come up with an assessment of whether or not you could afford or execute a series of missions that would enable humans to orbit Mars in the year 2033 and we are certain that you could, we could, human kind could. Led by the world’s largest space agency, NASA.

So, we think the NASA announcement is unfocused but we are here to help focus it so we can send people out to Mars in 2033, probably land there four earth-years later (in 2037 or 2039). And when we say ‘to Mars’ it may very well be to Phobos which is a moon of Mars. Which, because of the interaction of Mars with objects in the solar system, a lot of Martian dust, a lot of the surface of mars is knocked up into space above mars and gets caught, or impacted, or trapped, on the surface of Phobos. So, if humans could get to Phobos (and you like to think of the word landing—if they could land on Phobos—but it’s really like ‘lasso’ Phobos because the gravity’s so low) we could learn a lot about the Martian surface with human explorers. And this would be a worthy thing.

So, the NASA presentation is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough. But the Planetary Society- we’re here to help.

LW: Now, does NASA have to work with private agencies to accomplish this? What about the Mars One mission? What’s their role?

BN: Let us remember, NASA always works with private contractors. Every rocket that’s built, is built by a corporation… that builds rockets. For example, the United Launch Alliance, which has the Atlas V— that’s a rocket built by a corporation with employees who pay taxes and take government money to build this hardware. The space launch system, which is this very large rocket that’s being designed and built—that’s NASA money, but the people who build it are space contractors. In contrast to that is this idea of Mars One where people are wanting to go to Mars one way and never come back for $4 Billion US dollars! It’s, its ludicrous. There’s no way. You can’t get people to Mars for $4 Billion.

‘We’ll finance it by having everybody around the world watch everybody die on Mars on the internet!’ [sighs] I just don’t think you’re really gonna be able to do that. And there are international treaties which we’ve agreed not to contaminate Mars and I think that the plans that the Mars One people have for not contaminating Mars with human microbes is completely inadequate. I think it will never happen. But the publicity that Mars One has garnered indicates, I think, to everybody in the world how interested everybody in the world is in exploring Mars.

So, NASA, let’s take this worldwide enthusiasm, focus it, and get people orbiting Mars in 2033 (Humans Orbiting Mars, H.O.M.) and land on Mars a few years after that. Let’s get focused and get it done because if we were to discover evidence of life, or stranger still, life on Mars, it would change the course of human history. It would change the way everybody feels about his or her place in space.