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Bill Clinton on ALH84001 September 21, 2010

Posted by Simon in Uncategorized.

Here’s the text of the  statement from President Clinton in August 1996, at the time of the original ALH84001 research:

“Good afternoon. I’m glad to be joined by my science and technology adviser, Dr. Jack Gibbons, to make a few comments about today’s announcement by NASA.

This is the product of years of exploration and months of intensive study by some of the world’s most distinguished scientists. Like all discoveries, this one will and should continue to be reviewed, examined and scrutinized. It must be confirmed by other scientists. But clearly, the fact that something of this magnitude is being explored is another vindication of America’s space program and our continuing support for it, even in these tough financial times. I am determined that the American space program will put it’s full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars.

First, I have asked Administrator Goldin to ensure that this finding is subject to a methodical process of further peer review and validation. Second, I have asked the Vice President to convene at the White House before the end of the year a bipartisan space summit on the future of America’s space program. A significant purpose of this summit will be to discuss how America should pursue answers to the scientific questions raised by this finding. Third, we are committed to the aggressive plan we have put in place for robotic exploration of Mars. America’s next unmanned mission to Mars is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in November. It will be followed by a second mission in December. I should tell you that the first mission is scheduled to land on Mars on July the 4th, 1997 — Independence Day.

It is well worth contemplating how we reached this moment of discovery. More than 4 billion years ago this piece of rock was formed as a part of the original crust of Mars. After billions of years it broke from the surface and began a 16 million year journey through space that would end here on Earth. It arrived in a meteor shower 13,000 years ago. And in 1984 an American scientist on an annual U.S. government mission to search for meteors on Antarctica picked it up and took it to be studied. Appropriately, it was the first rock to be picked up that year — rock number 84001.

Today, rock 84001 speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles. It speaks of the possibility of life. If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental.

We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people’s future”.

A couple of things that really struck me about this:

Although there’s plenty of caution in the statement (“this one will and should continue to be reviewed, examined and scrutinized”, “it must be confirmed by other scientists”, and “ensure that this finding is subject to a methodical process of further peer review and validation”), the distinct impression from the end of the statement is that a *big* discovery with profound implications for humankind has just been made.

Secondly, there’s direct link that’s being made between ALH84001 and orders for NASA (and presumably funding) to explore Mars further.

It seems like both of these points served to inflate the controversy – having the president proclaim your research before the paper has been published rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and having a direct link between your research and funding for your organisation make it more difficult for that organisation to question or step back from the controversial findings.

It makes me wonder if things would have turned out differently if the story had been handled differently from Day 1.



1. The embargo | The Mars Controversy - October 5, 2010

[…] story hit the prime time news on 6 August, the NASA press conference happened the next day, and President Clinton released statement. And then the fun […]

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