David Bowie once famously asked if there was life on Mars. Noted space engineer B. Gentry Lee would most certainly answer with an emphatic “no.” However, the highly energetic and entertaining Lee, who prefers to just be called Gentry, spent more than an hour last Tuesday night regaling the crowd with stories about the fourth planet from the sun as the featured guest at Malibu’s popular Library Speaker Series at City Hall.
Coming on the heels of the total solar eclipse just a week earlier, reservations for the free event booked up quickly to hear Lee, who is one of the foremost authorities on space as the chief engineer for the Solar System Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The 75-year-old has been involved in every mission exploring the red planet. From 1977-88 he was the chief engineer for the Galileo project and was director of science analysis and mission planning during Viking operations. With the late Carl Sagan, Lee partnered in the creation, design and development of the hit TV documentary series “Cosmos,” which won several Emmys and a prestigious Peabody Award. Lee kept the audience captivated with no slides and no props.
Starting with the fundamental question “Are we alone?” Lee noted that 26 percent of Americans believe Earth has been visited by aliens. He recalled serving on a panel as a “skeptical technocrat” alongside a Harvard PhD as well as people who claimed to have had extraterrestrial contact. The Harvard psychologist concluded the abductees’ stories must have been true given their similarities. But Lee countered, “Twenty-six percent extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Don’t you think it’s fascinating that all the people who claimed they’ve been abducted by aliens, not one has ever brought back a single artifact? Not a thimble? Not a napkin? Not a fork? Not a toothpick? Not anything that I and my group could immediately reverse engineer and determine that it could not possibly have been made on the planet Earth. There does not exist one piece of incontrovertible evidence.”
Lee bemoaned the difficulties he sometimes encountered in dealing with members of the press who were uneducated in science. After the Viking mission, a photograph emerged that showed shadows on a Mars rock that appeared to look like a “B” and “G”—Lee’s initials. Some members of the press interpreted the shadows as writing. Lee’s secretary rushed to let him know that “NBC is on line one, CBS is on line two, ABC is on line three and The National Enquirer is on line four. I picked up line four,” Lee laughingly recalled.
Scientists have learned through exploration that there were once enormous lakes on Mars, even oceans. Now those surfaces are covered with ice that turns directly into vapor. According to Lee, scientists have identified all the fundamental chemicals that are necessary to produce life on the planet. “We know that for a fact,” he said. “No, we have not found a dinosaur bone. But we now know that at least for half-a-million years—the beginning of its life—Mars was an hospitable place for life. As of this moment there is no incontrovertible evidence that life has ever evolved anywhere else other than on the planet Earth. Those of us who are looking for it believe it is there, but as of this moment it is not.”
Describing his love of science, Lee, also a successful science fiction novelist, summed it up: “When I was a kid I was a knowledge junkie. I absolutely loved learning everything I could possibly learn. I knew each day I was going to learn something new and it was going to turn me on. But then I decided I had to have a job and what job would be perfect for a knowledge junkie?
“I said, ‘If it’s the year 2500 and we’re looking back at the time I’m alive, what are we going to pay attention to?’” Lee asked himself, “I thought, ‘Aha! My generation will be the only one who ever explored the solar system for the first time.’ If you’d have told me at age 15 that a job like this exists I would have told you, ‘No way.’”
Lee’s most recent work includes the engineering oversight of the Curiosity rover mission to Mars, the Dawn mission to asteroids Vesta and Ceres, the Juno mission to Jupiter and the GRAIL mission to the moon.
Malibu resident Jill Greenberg, an old friend of Lee’s from years ago, commented: “It was the most fascinating evening. I’m so honored that Malibu can get such amazing, talented people to come talk to us.”