Whenever any sort of discovery is made in space, it is always viewed through the lens of a search for life.
I wonder how these discoveries might have been received 50 years ago, back when America was actually working to put humans on other worlds. Would we have thrilled over Martian water because of the prospect of finding microbes? I wasn’t there, but I think we would have been more interested in water because of its usefulness to humans. Whether or not there were microbes would have been a secondary consideration, viewed through the lens of human exploration.
Why are we so concerned with alien life? Why is that our lens? In practical terms, finding alien life would mean virtually nothing for us. But in philosophical terms, it would be very significant. It would prove that “we are not alone.”
The phrase “search for life” is somewhat misleading, because it is really a search for the origin of life, for how life arose. This search is predicated on the belief that life is not fundamentally different from any other physical phenomenon, that life is like convection or crystallization, just atoms doing their thing. Finding alien life would be construed as proof of this, proof that life just happens, without purpose, without plan. (If it happened here and happened there, then it could happen anywhere.) Indeed, the desire for this proof is the reason why we are eager to find alien life, because despite 150 years of guessing, we still have no idea how life could just happen. It still seems impossible. It still seems like life is somehow miraculous.
We are not alone? Let’s rephrase that: “We are not special.”
In America’s imagination, space exploration was once seen as a quest to conquer “the final frontier.” The quest has changed. Now we think of it as a quest to prove that life on Earth is not unique, not special. We discover other things along the way, of course, but these discoveries are not what excite us. What we are really looking for is proof that we are not a miracle, but just an inevitably common sort of chemical reaction.
50 years ago, in what would (sadly, surprisingly) turn out to be space exploration’s golden age, we took it for granted that humans were special. We wanted to put people on other planets to have people on other planets. We believed in ourselves, and the realization of human potential was a self-evident good. We went boldly into space to empower and exalt humanity.
That is the past, more distant each day. Apollo 11 is closer in time to Herbert Hoover than to Barack Obama. This new generation does not go boldly. We send proxies, hoping that they will prove us to be insignificant and unworthy.
NOTE: This is not a criticism of robotic exploration as such, or of people who design and launch robots. Robots are cool. This is about American psychology and worldview.