NASA Spins Disappointing Findings to a Public Eager for "Life"

All mainstream media stories have the news about the first Martian soil tests. Guess how they spin it. (Answer follows this excerpt from an LA Times article.)

A sample of soil about the size of a sugar cube was delivered to the lab by the lander's nearly 8-foot-long robotic arm and mixed with water brought from Earth.

Analysis showed that the soil is alkaline, with a pH between 8 and 9, Kounaves said. This was a surprise to the many scientists who had argued that Martian soil was probably too acidic to support life.

With that level of alkalinity, "you might be able to grow asparagus very well," Kounaves said. Strawberries, on the other hand, require more acidic soil.

The test also turned up magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride, all of which are useful in organic processes.

The test did not turn up the prize that the $420-million mission was sent to find: complex organics indicating that the cold, dry planet once was, or still might be, habitable.

Organic compounds, made up of carbon in combination with nitrogen, hydrogen and other elements, are necessary to build the elaborate chemical scaffolding of life, at least as we know it on Earth.

Furthermore, even though the soil chemistry would provide some nutrients for life, any future crops would have to be grown underground, because the meager atmosphere lets in too much of the sun's destructive ultraviolet rays.

If the story were told in true inverted pyramid format (most important info first) the headline and lead would be:

No Life on Mars

NASA's $420-million mission has not found the complex organics indicating that Mars once was, or still might be, habitable.

Instead, the headline and subhead are:

Mars soil capable of sustaining plant life

Surprisingly alkaline, it could support green beans and asparagus, say Phoenix mission scientists, who are 'flabbergasted' by the findings.

We all know Mars is a dead world, but newspaper articles always tease us with the possibility of "life" because most people will not want to pay $420 million for some boring old data about rocks and stuff.