'War of the Worlds' in Maybury

Future Tense for Jul. 09, 2007

By Steve Welker

“The War of the Worlds” began near Maybury in Surrey County.

No, I’m not kidding, I’m not misspelling the names and I’m not making this up.

And yes, I live in "Mayberry" in Surry County.

In H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel, the Martians’ first spacecraft lands on Horsell Common about a mile and a half from Maybury, home of the novel’s narrator. All in Surrey County, England.

When I read that the other night, I couldn’t have been more surprised if someone told me a flying saucer had landed at Creekside Cinema (which, come to think about it, is about as close to my office as Horsell Common is to Maybury).

Herbert George Wells published “The War of the Worlds” in 1898, continuing a series of “science romances” he began with “The Time Machine” and “The Invisible Man.” In those and other books, Wells predicted the London blitz, the atomic bomb, the urban flight to suburbs, the sexual revolution, organ transplants from animals to humans, lasers, chemical weapons and a universal encyclopedia much like the Internet’s Wikipedia.

But he got the Martian invasion wrong.

Wells imagined that the Great Minds of Mars knew their planet was dying from cold and a lack of water. “And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and gray with water....” Using a massive cannon, the Martians send an armada of great ships and infernal machines to wipe out mankind and take over Earth. It’s a great story, convincingly told, and Orson Welle’s radio version scared the bejeezus out of half of America on Oct. 30, 1938.

However, it’s total fiction.

If Martians ever land on Earth, it will be because we brought them here. If you don’t believe me, ask NASA.

The space agency’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group released a 77-page study that details the missions and scientific studies necessary before NASA sends astronauts to Mars around 2030. One of the highest priorities is to determine “if each Martian site to be visited by humans is free ... of replicating biohazards which may have adverse effects on humans and other terrestrial species.”

And how should NASA make that determination?

You guessed it: By fetching samples of Mars for close examination in Earth’s labs.

NASA has penciled a Mars Sample Return Mission in its calendar for 2013.

Discussing that mission in NASA’s typically sterile scientific prose, the new report says, “The most significant risk ... (is) the possibility of transporting a replicating life form to Earth, where it is found to have a negative effect on some aspect of the Earth’s ecosystem.”

A negative effect might be eating every carbon-based molecule on the planet, including those in my precious skin.

Consider, hypothetically, what life is like for a microbe on Mars. Its ancestors have adapted over generations to cold, starvation and thirst. By now, this microbe — called it “Mikey” — will eat almost anything in Mars’ barren sands.

Picked up by a NASA probe, Mikey is brought to Earth where it wakes up in a nice, warm NASA lab filled with organic compounds. What happens then? Author Michael Crichton predicted one possible result in “The Andromeda Strain,” when an alien virus began eating rubber gaskets and subsequently escaped from a government lab.

NASA’s study says the probability of such “negative consequences” is very low, but also admits “the consequences could potentially be very large.”

Honestly, I’m not too worried. Before it attempts a sample-return mission, NASA will send several robotic laboratories to Mars to analyze the soil. If they find life in any recognizable form, they will study it very carefully before attempting a return-sample mission. I wouldn’t be surprised if NASA analyzed any samples in the International Space Station before flying them down to Earth’s surface.

But just in case, I really would prefer that NASA land them a long, long way away from Mayberry in Surry County ... in the future.

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