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'Astrobiology superstar' to make case for human travel to Mars

Chris McKay

Chris McKay is a leading authority of life on Mars, Titan and beyond.
Photo by: Chris McKay, NASA Ames Research Center

October 09, 2015

A resurgence of public interest in Mars has been fueled by the recent discovery of flowing water on the Red Planet and the new box office hit "The Martian," which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor.

Long considered a sister planet to Earth, Mars has always generated a fair amount of general and scientific interest that has led to exploration of the planet through robotic missions looking for telltale signs of life — past or present.

But now, the challenges and limitations of the robotic exploration program and strong public interest in Mars are motivating some to reconsider human exploration of the planet and assess long-term prospects for life on that world.

How can humans complete the search for life and what will we do if we discover a second genesis for life on Mars? Can we restore Mars to a habitable world? Should we?

Chris McKay, a research scientist with NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield in Northern California's Silicon Valley, will address some of these topics in the 2015 Shoemaker Memorial Lecture “Beyond Robots: The Case for Human Exploration of Mars." He is a leading authority on planetary science and the origin of life.

“Chris McKay is an astrobiology superstar,” said Paul Davies, director of ASU’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, which is hosting the event. “He is a brilliant expositor and the most entertaining speaker I know in the field. He is also the go-to person for any aspect of life on Mars, Titan and beyond. I am thrilled he has agreed to deliver the 2015 Shoemaker Memorial Lecture.”

McKay has done research on planetary atmospheres, particularly the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan, and on the origin and evolution of life. He is a co-investigator on the Huygens probe of Titan, the Mars Phoenix lander and the Mars Science Laboratory. McKay has also performed field research on extremophiles in such locations as Death Valley, California, the Atacama Desert in South America, the Axel Heiberg Islands in northern Canada and the ice-covered lakes of Antarctica.

McKay, who is the principal investigator of the proposed Icebreaker Life astrobiology mission to Mars, is actively involved in planning for future Mars missions — including human exploration of the Red Planet. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Planetary Society and also works with the Mars Society.

The Shoemaker Lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m., Nov. 3, in the Marston Theater at ISTB4 on ASU's Tempe campus. It is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested. For more information, please go to, or call 480-965-3240.