Descent to Mars

A thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth–twisting, crawling and climbing their way through one of the most spectacular caves in the world–a team of NASA scientists hope to discover rock-eating microbes that may populate the Red Planet.

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  1. I awoke face-down in the dirt, drenched with sweat, engulfed in darkness so absolute that it made no difference whether my eyes were open or closed. Groggy and disoriented, I sat bolt upright and tried to figure out where I was. Then I remembered, and had to fight back a wave of panic: I was a thousand feet underground, in the midst of a claustrophobic labyrinth called Lechuguilla Cave.

    I groped inside my sleeping bag until I found a flashlight, and flicked it on. The beam illuminated a low, domed space the size of a parking garage festooned with preposterous limestone udders. Nine other people were sprawled on the ground nearby. Three of them—Chris McKay, Penny Boston, and Larry Lemke—were NASA scientists who had descended into this disquieting netherworld because, as McKay had explained earlier with an apparent non sequitur, “We want to know if there’s life on Mars.”

    It was not easy getting here. The mission had been launched two days earlier, from a scorched New Mexico hillside freckled with prickly pear and lechuguilla plants—the spiny agave after which the cave was named. Located in Carlsbad National Park, just a few miles from Carlsbad Caverns, the unmarked entrance to Lechuguilla is a forbidding vertical shaft. Wearing helmets, headlamps, mountaineering harnesses, and 50-pound backpacks, we attached ourselves to a frayed rope, shuffled backwards over the edge, and rappelled one by one into the gloom. Within moments we found ourselves in an environment that felt more ...