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Dr Christopher P McKay
planetary scientist at the Space Science Division at NASA Ames Research Centre, and investigator for the Huygens probe on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, the Phoenix mission to Mars, and the Mars Science Laboratory

The TV series Star Trek inspired me 30 years ago, with the view that science could lead to a positive future and that there were great things still to do – great voyages of discovery waiting to be made. I was determined to help make that future real, and to participate in those great discoveries.

It was all too easy to be disenchanted with science, at a time when the future looked grim and science was often blamed. Science had given us atomic weapons, chemical pollution and dwindling ozone. Science was not the hero of the bright new future, it was the villain.

But Star Trek imagined that the future could be bright – that science and technology could be used to create a positive and humane future. So I went through physics and astrophysics, obtained my PhD, and now spend my time with NASA, exploring new worlds and seeking new life forms.

For now, our team voyages to extreme environments on Earth such as the Antarctic, the Arctic and the Atacama Desert of Chile. But from these, we will reach to the human exploration of space. My current interest is to try to develop the tricorder, so that someday we can say: ‘It’s life, Jim, just not as we know it.’

Christopher McKay is coeditor of Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).