National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award

Christopher P. McKay

Dr. Christopher P. McKay | 2019

The NASA Space Grant community is pleased to announce that Dr. Christopher P. McKay has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.


Christopher P. McKay is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, studying planetary atmospheres, astrobiology, and terraforming. McKay majored in physics at Florida Atlantic University, where he also studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 1975,and received his PhD in astrogeophysics from the University of Colorado in 1982.

McKay has done research on planetary atmospheres, particularly the atmospheres of Titan and Mars, and on the origin and evolution of life. He is a co-investigator on the Huygens probe, the Mars Phoenix lander, and the Mars Science Laboratory. He also performed field research on extremophiles, in such locations as Death Valley, the Atacama Desert, Axel Heiberg Island, and ice-covered lakes in Antarctica. McKay is the Principal Investigator of the proposed Icebreaker Life astrobiology mission to Mars. In 2015 he received the Nevada Medal.

He was a member of the board of directors of the Planetary Society and also works with the Mars Society, and has written and spoken on space exploration and terraforming. He is also an adviser for the Microbes Mind Forum.

McKay advocates a moderately biocentric position in the ethics of terraforming, arguing that we must thoroughly explore a planet such as Mars first to discover whether there is any microbial life before taking first steps toward terraforming, and that if indigenous alien life is found in an obscure niche or dormant on Mars, we should remove all Earth life and alter Mars to support the global spread of this alien life on Mars. He has held a series of public debates with Robert Zubrin, who advocates a moderately anthropocentric position on the ethics of terraforming.

About the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award 

The National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award was established to recognize individuals whose life and career have had a long lasting impact in a science, engineering or education field that is related to aeronautic, aviation, or space endeavors. The inaugural award was presented in 2003 to former Senator and Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd M. Bentsen for his visionary work in creating the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Act. Past Recipients of the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award Lloyd Bentsen, James Van Allen, Peter Diamandis, John Glenn, John Young, Leon Lederman, Vera Rubin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sally Ride, Julius Dasch, Ellen Ochoa, Bill Nye, and Katherine Johnson.