To clear up a few common misconceptions: David Morrison, interim director of NASA's Lunar Science Institute, has never seen a Martian. He has no idea what's in Area 51, the infamous place in Nevada where some people claim the government has captured and experimented on aliens, but he suspects it is merely a testing ground for aircraft. He has never seen a UFO, but he promises that NASA would tell us if a real one were spotted.
These are facts that Morrison explains on a daily basis to the readers of his column on the NASA website, "Ask an Astrobiologist." Formerly the director of astrobiology and space research at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, Morrison envisioned the column as a place for inquiring minds to ask about recent research—but instead has found himself having to disprove what seems like every Photoshopped-alien hoax that makes its way through cyberspace. He leaves readers' queries unedited so as to capture the nuances in questions such as: "I read some one elses question about rosewell, what is nasa hiding? the goverment is covering up something,i think we the american people should know. my question what are the nasa people dong in space so much? mars and the moon could not be so interesting."
His reply? "Mars, the Moon, and the search for evidence of life beyond the Earth are indeed very interesting...They are far more interesting subjects than the fiction you refer to."
U.S. News connected with Morrison to ask him some questions his readers don't often send in.
In your column, how much time do you spend debunking alien conspiracies?
As little as possible. I probably spend at least half a day every week answering questions. I prefer to answer the questions that are about science. I would say half of the questions are not.
What are some of the most ridiculous questions you've had to answer?
I got a question yesterday from someone who said they had seen the NASA pictures of structures on Mars. There are no NASA pictures of structures on Mars. I scratched my head and said, "What has this person been seeing?" It bothers me that there's so much misinformation. And I got a question a few weeks ago from someone who said they saw a video that the planet Nibiru [which doesn't exist, according to scientists] was going to destroy the Earth in 2012, and they were shaking and crying. They're just so misinformed. We try to light a little candle in the dark.
Do such questions annoy you?
It's frustrating that the public is confused on these issues, [but] I can understand it. I can Google something like "Nibiru" and find page after page of nonsense—without a page of the truth. I think that's sad.
Why do you think so many people believe untruths?
People look at fiction on the Internet and think it's real. It's not really our business to combat [rumors], but the best thing NASA can do is always tell the truth. We can't stop other people from thinking and writing what they want, and I wouldn't want the government to stop people from thinking what they want. I'm not a psychologist—I just think that the real world is fascinating, and I hate to see people taken in by charlatans.
You're an astrobiologist, in fact. What types of scientists become astrobiologists?
[Astrobiology] is inherently multidisciplinary. We founded the Astrobiology Institute [a decentralized organization of collaborating scientists in many fields] on the premise that these fundamental questions on the origin and distribution of life would be best answered by scientists of different backgrounds. We're trying to encourage scientists who normally wouldn't talk to each other, like a geologist and a biologist, to work together. We encourage the training of a new generation of students who can work across these discipline boundaries.
How do astrobiologists study life on other planets when none has been found yet?
There's only one kind of life that we can study, and that's life on Earth, so we study terrestrial life that lives in extreme environments to understand what early life was like. We study habitability. For example, when our scientists from Princeton and Indiana University found life in a 2-mile-deep mine in South Africa, that's the first case of discovering life that is completely independent of what happens on the surface. [The microbes] live off of gases from radioactive activity produced in the rock. No one previously had any idea that life could exist inside the Earth. It might be an analogue for life below the surface of Mars.
Do you think NASA will find signs of life on any other planets within your lifetime?
The holy grail for astrobiologists is to find and study an [extraterrestrial] form of life. In the case of Mars, it would be wonderfully exciting to find life there, but it would be great to find something that was not too related to Earth life. We ought to have the capability within the next 25 years to drill below the surface of Mars. If we're really lucky, it will be some serendipitous discovery that I can't anticipate.
How could drilling on Mars lead to identifying life there?
The plan is to take rocks and bring them back to Earth for analysis. We won't know if there's life until we can get it back to Earth. We have an obligation to protect the Earth from contamination from Mars, so they will be treated as if they have alien life and will be isolated and studied so they won't have contamination from Earth.
How likely is it that extraterrestrial life would be related to Earth life?
If the life had an independent origin, it's not going to be similar to us. That would be the most exciting origin. In the case of Mars, however, 4 billion years ago, the climates of Earth and Mars were very similar, and we know there was an exchange of rocks [between the two planets] because it's still happening today. If the climates were similar, it's possible that if life started on one, it would spread to the other. [Since Earth's first life-forms might have originated on Mars,] it's possible that we are Martians, which is a fascinating idea.