NASA Faces Obstacles in Its Search for Life on Mars

One concept most scientists agree on is that water is necessary for life. Because of this, finding water on Mars has become a mission for NASA. In the October 3 issue of Science, it was reported that the Phoenix mission to Mars has found minerals that “are indicators of liquid water in the past,” according to principal Phoenix investigator Peter Smith at a press conference on September 29. These minerals were sampled mere centimeters above the suspected position of frozen water.

To discover if indeed water had interacted with the minerals, the Phoenix took samples and ran several tests. Through these tests, soil samples were heated to high temperatures while Phoenix measured the amount of water and carbon dioxide released. Scientists believe that anywhere from tens of thousands to several million years ago the frozen ice on Mars may have warmed. This could have caused the ice to melt, allowing for the possibility of microbial life to develop in the soil. Even if this holds true, it is possible that the water and microbes formed elsewhere on the planet and were relocated via wind and time.

Unfortunately, this gives scientists little insight into when the liquid water existed or where. To make matters worse, the Phoenix machine only has a matter of months before the Martian winter disables it. Since the Phoenix is powered by solar panels and the sun is increasingly absent, it will soon fail to function. Phoenix has, however, already finished its original 90-day mission and an extended 30-day mission. While Smith would like to look for organic matter resulting from past life, William Boynton, another lead scientist, is not very hopeful of success. He notes that if any does exist, it exists in very small quantities. Scientists anticipate that Phoenix will continue to operate into November; however, toward the end of the month, it is likely the extreme cold and snow will completely disable the system.

Future Missions

Another mission, however, is already being planned for 2010. Recently, 100 scientists met to vote on where to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to have the most success of finding water. This is important since it will cost $1.9 billion. As always, there were two opposing groups. The spectroscopists hope to send the machine to areas which give off spectral colors distinctive of rocks which have interacted with water. The second group, geologists, believe any site showing rock formations clearly formed by interaction with water would be the most likely place for success. It will still take until November for the managers and landing-site steering committee to decide which three spots should be in contention as the most viable. It will be until spring 2009 before a winning site is declared.

Although the MSL was originally planned for launch in the fall of 2009, it was feared that this would be delayed for two years. Scientists grew anxious that this could delay other missions or cancel them all together if the MSL was not launched as planned. The reason for this was increased cost and complexity of the MSL machine. The MSL is four times heavier than the typical machines and is loaded with scientific instruments to examine the soil and atmosphere of Mars. This has been costly. In 2004, the rover was to cost $1.2 billion. As of this year, it is now projected to cost $1.9 billion.

Budget Concerns

The flow of money has not been staunched, however. NASA expects another $300 million to be added to the project, increasing the total cost to $2.2 billion. If this happens, it could threaten the 2013 Scout mission which is estimated to cost $485 million. The 2016 mission could also be cancelled. If it is, the $1.4 billion that would be freed would be put toward the MSL mission and two other rovers currently on Mars. Unfortunately, delaying the MSL launch could cost even more than continuing with it, according to Jack Mustard who leads NASA’s Mars science advisory panel. He noted that, “A two year delay could increase the cost of the mission…that would come out of the Mars budget.”

Regardless of the decision made regarding MSL and future rover missions, it is certain that the search for water and life on Mars will cost significant amounts of money in the near future. Although the findings from this type of study could be interesting, spending this much money on such a project tends to seem a bit irresponsible given the $700 billion bailout the government is also slated to spend in an attempt to save the economy. Perhaps the billions of dollars currently marked for rover missions could be reallocated to a fund for tax payer relief instead.

References:

Kerr, Richard. Minerals Suggest Water Once Flowed On Mars—But Where? (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 32.

Kerr, Richard. Culture Wars Over How to Find an Ancient Niche for Life on Mars. (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 39.

Lawler, Andrew. Rising Costs Could Delay NASA’s Next Mission to Mars and Future Launches. (26 Sept 2008). Science 321(5897) p. 1754.

Reforming Healthcare & Taking On Big Pharma: An E-Interview & Reader Q&A with S.J. Robinson

Former nurse and retired attorney S.J. Robinson, author of The Price of Death, has practiced law dealing with medical malpractice and insurance companies over the last 30 years. Her book focuses on issues such as health insurance reform, oversight for prescription drug production, and the growing power of healthcare conglomerates. For more information about Robinson and The Price of Death, visit www.sjrobinson.com. (Interview conducted by R. C. Anderson and Dr. J.C.)

In a capitalist healthcare system focused on profits, what is the most effective reimbursement structure to reward providers for care while also managing costs?

We need a regulated system – a private/public partnership [that…involves payment to the government for healthcare and government-monitored, private health insurance companies administering payment to privately employed doctors and privately run hospitals]. Over the last 20 years, we have been depending on the free enterprise system to bring costs down. Over that time, healthcare costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation. That is because we don’t really have a free enterprise system. The free market is skewed by politics. The large healthcare companies have huge amounts of money to pass along to Congress via lobbyists, who influence Congress to pass laws that benefit big business healthcare.

What we are not cognizant of is the tremendous amount of profit realized by these companies, healthcare insurance, managed care, and pharmaceutical companies. These companies drive up our healthcare costs. We have the most expensive healthcare in the world, spending 17% of our GDP. France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Taiwan spend roughly 8-9% of their GDP on healthcare, cover everyone, and have extremely happy patients.

We are told that the only alternative to the system that we have is the Canadian style system. That is a false story put out by the beneficiaries of our current system, primarily the insurance companies.

One obvious consequence of bringing down big pharma and device companies is that they will no longer spend the huge R&D on blockbuster drugs if there is no capital reward via reimbursement. Thus one clear consequence of making healthcare more affordable is a slowing of discovery and advancement. How can we incentivize advancement in medicine while controlling costs?

Big pharma spends 10-15% of its profit on research and development and 30-40% on marketing. Professor Karl Lauterbach of Germany said in a PBS interview on Frontline, titled Sick Around the World, “I don’t know of a single economist who would buy into that argument. I think this is a lobbyist argument. A market works best if there are no inefficiencies, and higher-than-necessary prices are inefficiencies. And the drug companies now spend more for marketing the drugs than for innovating the drugs. This clearly is an artifact which comes across with this system of subsidized and too-high prices.”

Do you think that class-action lawsuits by providers against insurance companies are a good solution to balance the inequity of power insurance companies wield in the current healthcare climate? Or does this merely clog the judicial system and become a distraction from what providers should be doing: helping patients?

Class actions and lawsuits in general are very wasteful of resources because the outcome is extremely uncertain and the suits are very costly in time and money. They would take time away from healthcare and possibly put health care workers in an unfavorable light vis-à-vis the public. As I said, the outcome of lawsuits is uncertain, and I think they should be used as a last resort. The better approach in this case is to influence the public and Congress for the development of a new healthcare system: a public/private partnership which eliminates the excessive profits of health insurance companies, big pharma, and managed care.

In your August newsletter, you describe the many and varied problems the U.S. has had with contaminated or improperly supervised drugs coming from China. Would it not solve a lot of the U.S.’s problems as well as poor patient outcomes if we simply stopped accepting drugs from China and instead paid a bit more for drugs that are properly supervised in countries that care to ensure it? What do you think it would take to reduce consumerism from China, especially given that drugs are not the only problems we have had, but also melanin contaminated products and lead contaminated toys?

I don’t think it likely that world trade is going to be turned back, and it may not even be a good idea. We already pay two to three times more for pharmaceuticals than other developed countries, for example Canada. We have been told that we must pay more in order to safeguard our drug supply and promote the development of new drugs.

U.S. drug companies are making record profits but still want to make more. They are having their drugs made in China to increase profits. Because we pay a premium for pharmaceuticals, I believe that we are a target for counterfeit pharmaceuticals, not more protected. Counterfeiters have no compunction about who they kill and want to make the most money. In my book, The Price of Death, I discuss the point of view of the Chinese on counterfeiting. Because this administration has actually reduced funding for the FDA despite the fact that world trade has increased, we are at great risk. At its current rate, the FDA will be able to inspect the 700 plants now open in China in the next 40-50 years. What we should do is require importers to pay a government fee to have their imports inspected. There is no reason that they should be making record profits and putting the consumer at risk as they are.

There was a problem with Baxter International heparin earlier this year, which, according to the FDA, probably came from China. The FDA says that the manufacturer used oversulfated chondroitin sulfate (OCS) instead of chondroitin sulfate (CS). The relative cost of the bogus chemical was only $9 per unit vs. $900 for the correct ingredient. There had also been a reduction in the availability of other materials to make heparin because it comes from pigs, and there was a pig epidemic in China. While it is difficult to prove, one can speculate why the plants would have substituted the new ingredient when stocks of other ingredients fell short and became more expensive. I say that it is difficult to prove partly because the Chinese government had not admitted that the OCS was the cause of the problem even though the FDA has indicated so on its website. The bogus chemical fooled the standard tests [about the protein content of the product], impeding immediate discovery of the problem.

Now Here’s Your Chance to Ask the Questions (and Win One of Three Copies of The Price of Death, Too!)

Do you have a question that we didn’t ask? Here’s your chance to pick S.J. Robinson’s brain. Submit your questions for her in the comments section, and she’ll be available for a week to answer them. Also, by submitting your question, you will be automatically entered into a drawing next week in which three winners will receive a free copy of her book. (Sorry, you must be a U.S. or Canada resident to participate in the drawing.) Please see our Book Giveaways information page for complete details and ask away!