The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology recently held hearings about upcoming planetary missions, specifically to Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. The panel contained a number of planetary scientists. During the hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California posed the following question to the panel; “You have indicated that Mars had, was totally different thousands of years ago. Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?"

What does the science say about life on Mars?

As Kenneth Farley, a project scientist for NASA's Mars Rover 2020, suggested, Dana Rohrabacher’s time frame is more than a little off.

Scientists believe that Mars was a warmer, wetter world billions of years ago with a thick atmosphere. However, since the Red Planet lacks a magnetic field, the atmosphere was gradually blown into space by solar wind. The water either evaporated and blew away with the atmosphere or survived as permafrost at the poles and possibly under the surface.

Life might well have arisen during Mars’ wet, warm period. Indeed, the continuing mission of Mars probes dating back to the Viking landers in the mid-1970s has been to find a remnant of that life, microbial or else something like fossils. So far nothing resembling life has been located, and recent findings suggest that the Martian surface is too toxic to sustain it anyway.

No one has found any indication that Mars ever harbored Intelligent Life. Whether any artifacts of a hypothetical ancient Martian civilization would have survived over billions of years is open to question. Some have claimed to have seen signs of an ancient Martian civilization in NASA photographs, such as the so-called Face on Mars, but these turned out to be tricks of light and shadow.

Rohrabacher is a space iconoclast

Dana Rohrabacher has been something of a space maverick during his career in Congress. He was one of the sole Republicans to have supported President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation space exploration project and has opposed the Journey to Mars. Rohrabacher is a champion of commercial space, of subsidies directed to such companies as SpaceX.

However, the fact that Rohrabacher asked the question he did suggests that he has a serious gap in his knowledge where it comes to planetary science. Mars has not been considered an abode of life since shortly after H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs were still writing. The gap should be regarded as odd for a man who has sat on House Science for as long as Rohrabacher.

At the very least, the congressman should have some words with his staff. Clearly, they should brief him more about life on Mars before allowing him to ask questions about the subject.