Christopher Smith considers the recent excitement about the possibility of life on Mars

There was a great deal of excitement at Michaelmas this year, generated by a press release from NASA claiming that there is running water – that is to say liquid water rather than just ice – on Mars. Generally speaking, it’s pretty cold on Mars – it has a thin atmosphere and is further away from the sun than Earth, and averages minus 60 degrees centigrade – but sometimes the temperature picks up to a pleasant 20 if you’re in the right place at the right time.

Truth to tell, in spite of the hype, no liquid has been collected and analysed in a test tube, either remotely on Mars or by human hand on Earth; and the press release actually said that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found ‘the strongest evidence yet’ that briny water flows intermittently on the red planet. That evidence is that a spectrometer has observed ‘darkish streaks’ that ‘appear to ebb and flow over time’ when the temperature is as high as minus 23.

When put like that, it doesn’t seem so exciting, does it? But the press of course immediately became highly excited, taking their cue from the lead scientist at NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme, who said, ‘It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future’. The headline writers were in clover. ‘Does water on Mars mean alien life is out there?’, asked the Telegraph. ‘Mars find suggests our solar system is awash with life’, said the Guardian. ‘Dark secrets in the Martian sand give trickle of hope’, thought the Times.

It all goes to show how desperate we seem to be to find life somewhere ‘out there’, on a planet other than our own. Somehow, the possibility that there is a small quantity of very salty running water on Mars does not fill me with all that much excitement; but I do feel, as perhaps many of us do, that there is at least a theoretical possibility that God has created life on other planets, given that he has created it here.

Scientists, of course, always want to reduce these things to numbers, and in the early 1960s, an American radio-astronomer called Frank Drake came up with an equation (containing some hugely conjectural factors) for estimating how many civilisations there might be in our galaxy. To be fair to Drake, he developed it largely to stimulate thinking on the question, and, by putting relatively high values on the various factors, came up with a figure of 50,000 civilisations. It has to be said, though, that if you put very low values in each time, you might find as few as twenty. Or maybe just one.

But twenty would be interesting enough, and one could hardly blame people who spend their working lives looking at the stars for wondering whether there are other civilisations out there, and, if so, how many. By the same token, they might also be concerned about what messages we are sending into space to anyone who might want to interpret them. Those of us who were watching Blue Peter in 1972 remember Pioneer 10 being sent off with a plaque designed by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan screwed to its outside showing line drawings of a man and a woman, now deemed somehow sexist. Today, a Russian billionaire called Yuri Milner is offering a million quid to the person who comes up with the best message to offer our fellow creatures across the Milky Way. I was sad to see a rather cynical letter on the subject from a correspondent to one of the nationals who said that, ‘given that the bulk of the world’s population cleave to the notion that our life-form is God-given and unique among the planets, it should probably be penned by a consummate ad man’.

Certainly, those of us who believe in a creating God (the bulk of the world’s population) do accept that our life is God-given, but I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong) that as Christians we have ever been required to believe that we are the only life-form in the created universe. Indeed, we are required to believe in an order of spiritual, non-corporeal beings whom we usually call ‘angels’. And the fall of the angel whom we call the devil or Satan is the beginning of the story of our own fall, since man, instead of resisting that cosmic fall, eats the fruit of the forbidden tree and falls too.

Last month, I made brief mention of the science-fiction trilogy by C. S. Lewis, with its voyages to Mars and Venus. Lewis posits worlds beyond our own where there has been no fall, where there is no word for ‘evil’, and where it would not enter anyone’s mind to do something they knew to be against the will of God. It’s a useful scenario to help us think about original sin: what if the fall had never happened? Of course, no fall means no Incarnation, no incorporation into God himself. No wonder the Exsultet speaks of the ‘happy fault’, the ‘necessary sin of Adam’. But no fall also means no Babel, no predation, no war.

So perhaps we have less to fear than most science fiction writers would have us believe. We often reflect that alien life-forms might look entirely different from us humans; but Lewis helps us imagine that they might behave very differently too. With no fall, why should they want to do us harm? Maybe, just maybe, there are races out there who simply want to do the will of God.

All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for. There seems no plan because it is all plan; there seems no centre because it is all centre. Blessed be He! [C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p277] ND