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Was the appearance of life on Earth likely or was it an anomaly? Did this same event also happen on billions of other planets that had similar conditions to ours, or was it the result of freak chance? Are the “universal” features of life on Earth, like the twenty amino acids to build proteins and the DNA and RNA used for genetic information, truly universal, or are they just one example of a vast tapestry of possibilities for how life can be?

These are how people today pose fundamental questions — What is the nature of life? Are we alone in the universe? — that thinking men and women have wondered about for thousands of years. We may be able to find the answers by exploring Mars.

In fact, of all the worlds in the cosmos, Mars may actually be the best one for seeking answers to these questions. The early Mars was similar to the early Earth. Both were warm and wet rocky planets with an atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide. Both had volcanoes releasing gases that contained the elements of organic chemistry: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Meteor impacts on both worlds could have created the atmospheric conditions necessary to turn these atoms into the building blocks of life. If life could originate and evolve on one planet, it might have done so on the other as well, even if not in the exact same way.

So life might well have emerged on Mars, yet not be so exotic as to escape our recognition, as we could more easily imagine being the case on planets formed in other solar systems. Further, Mars is accessible to the best life-finding agent we have: humans.

The search for life ought to be the great passion animating Mars exploration. But it has not been a goal for NASA. In fact, NASA’s public relations department frequently claims that the agency’s Mars exploration program is meant to “seek signs of life.” They say this because they know that it is what the public is — rightly — interested in. Unfortunately, the claim just isn’t true. NASA’s Mars robotic exploration program is actually focused on geological research, while its planned human Mars exploration program — inasmuch as it exists at all — is not being designed to properly support scientific exploration of any kind.

The last time our space agency conducted experiments to identify signs of living microbes on the planet was in 1976. The 2012 Curiosity rover was meant only to find out “if Mars was ever able to support microbial life,” and the 2021 Perseverance mission was to collect geological samples for later retrieval and perhaps find signs of ancient life — neither aimed at finding living things on the planet today.

Despite what it says, NASA has actually made the decision not to look for present life on Mars, even though tools that could identify life have been available to the agency for twenty years. Even worse, NASA’s existing rovers operating on Mars are being directed to avoid areas most likely to harbor life, and its plans for future human exploration are being designed in a way that would minimize their exploratory capability.

What in the world is NASA thinking? And how can we get the agency back on the path to finding life?