Remembering a big scoop about a small rock

“The Space News items, in both brevity and its placement, was so unassuming that it did not make a big, sudden splash. But it entered the circulatory system of the media beast. Like a virus, word spread. … By seven A.M. the next day — Tuesday — NASA had issued the emergency call for McKay, Gibson, and the other authors, wherever they were, to scramble to Washington for a press conference.”
from The Rock from Mars: a Detective Story on Two Planets
by Kathy Sawyer
Random House, 2006

Back in 1996, I had a big scoop about a small rock from outer space.

It was the tattletale Mars meteorite designated ALH84001, a large potato-sized object that was found over a dozen years earlier by on-the-job snowmobilers taking part in the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, a program funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.

Plucked from the Allan Hills ice field in Antarctica, ALH84001 has become the stuff of legend. But whether it’s celebrity status is the right stuff or wrong stuff remains debatable.

Based on chemical analyses, the meteorite is thought to have originated on Mars at a time when liquid water existed on that now bleak world. But there’s much more to the saga. This two-kilogram space collectible is the centerpiece of the science team’s still-controversial August 1996 claim that the rock contains microscopic and chemical evidence of ancient life indigenous to Mars. Now that’s news!

As an ear-to-the-ground reporter for SpaceNews, I had been making the rounds back then at a number of conferences — including Lunar and Planetary Institute research symposia held at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was there I began to pick up tid-bits about a puzzling Mars rock. And somewhere along the line a person I ran into said the word “fossil.”

photo-1-alh84001Still, not a lot to go on, but sure sounded like news to me.

For months afterward I snagged more Mars rock buzz at various meetings. I did have multiple sources inform me that something big was coming. Arguably, a turning point was a phone call to a NASA Headquarters insider asking for confirmation of a forthcoming announcement regarding a Mars meteorite carrying a fossil.

Yes, still riding on fumes, but that cold call — and a response that seemed akin to a non-denial denial — prodded me onward.

I calledmy editor at SpaceNews. He was already closing out that week’s paper but found room on page 2 for a short news brief headlined: “Meteorite Find Incites Speculation on Mars Life.” I identified the ALH84001 as a possible time capsule, with NASA Johnson Space Center analysis of the rock pointing to “indications of past biological activity on Mars” and “giving scientists a glimpse of a very young Mars.”

The Aug. 5-12 issue of SpaceNews came out on a Monday; NASA covened a press conference that Wednesday.

It has been over 20 years now since I walked into the NASA Headquarters auditorium on Aug. 7, 1996 for a standing-room-only press conference — and the Mars maelstrom of TV cameras, reporters and officialdom. I’ll admit now I thought to myself at the time, “what have I done?”

I remember somebody telling me NASA had found maggots in the Mars rock.

On display, front and center at the press event with a panel of talking heads — along with NASA’s chief at the time, Dan Goldin — was a sample of the Mars rock in a clear case, sealed up and sitting atop some velvet-looking pillow. Jokingly, I thought to myself, that case must be air-tight to keep those maggots away from the crush of unsuspecting onlookers.

NASA’s hastily arranged press conference to unveil the ALH84001 findings on Aug. 7, 1996 — two days after SpaceNews broke the story — was a standing-room-only affair. Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA’s hastily arranged press conference to unveil the ALH84001 findings on Aug. 7, 1996 —
two days after SpaceNews broke the story —
was a
standing-room-only affair. Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

It was quite the day. I also recollect making my way to a briefing at the National Science Foundation, having the good fortune to meet Roberta Score, the NSF snowmobiler who found ALH84001 in Antarctica. She said the meteorite caught her eye because it looked greenish, not black, against the white snow. I thought that was colorfully eerie.

The NASA Johnson Space Center-sponsored researchers, led by the late David McKay, Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keprta, published their findings in the journal Science a week after the NASA press briefing. That paper detailed the biogenic evidence for the rock star that is ALH84001 — possible indication of long-gone, fossil bacteria and chemical traces that might have come from bacteria on Mars.

Over the years, the speculative view that the Mars meteorite was a carrier of possible Martian fossils is still under dispute.

I reconnected with Everett Gibson in recent days to pulse his thinking, two decades after he and his research colleagues first made their case. On the 20th anniversary of the ALH84001 announcement, the collective statement from Gibson, Kathie Thomas-Keprta and Simon Clemett reads, in part:

“The ALH84001 announcement, despite whether you are a believer of the hypothesis or not, has clearly been the guiding idea for the development of the new interdisciplinary field of astrobiology. This must be viewed as positive for the field of scientific discoveries,” the statement says.

“Today, the research team believes that the original hypothesis is valid. No scientific data has been presented to date that disproves any of the four original lines of evidence presented in 1996. Interpretation of the data is where the disagreement arises.”

Whatever the true message from Mars rock ALH840001, it’s a reminder that unraveling the secrets of the red planet is a tough assignment.

The research spearheaded because of the infamous Mars rock has been invaluable in helping to shape the on-going quest about extraterrestrial life on that faraway world – long-gone in the planet’s past or still patiently waiting to be discovered.

Leonard David is a longtime SpaceNews contributor. His latest book,“Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet,”will be published in October by National Geographic.