Status Report

Director’s Corner – Message from NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher

By SpaceRef Editor
October 18, 2006
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Director’s Corner – Message from NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher

Greetings from NAI Central! I’ve been on the job as NAI Director for exactly a month, and I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to begin sharing some thoughts with all members of the NAI and others in the astrobiology community. I plan to write a column monthly or roughly every other issue of the NAI newsletter. I want to devote this column to a discussion of the challenges we’re facing in astrobiology.

It came as a shock to us all when the President’s FY07 budget request to Congress included a 50% cut to the astrobiology Research and Analysis program. Although this was driven to some degree by the budgetary challenges the agency is facing as a whole, it clearly reflects more than that. While we and a large science community have come to recognize the value and unique contributions of astrobiology, not all within the agency view the field so favorably. The clearest expression that astrobiology doesn’t “measure up” comes from the Administrator of NASA himself, Mike Griffin. Mike has testified before Congress that he does not see astrobiology as having the same importance as other components of the NASA science portfolio. He’s also been quoted as saying that it has less intrinsic subject matter, is less advanced, and that its questions are more vague.

Shortly before I left NASA Headquarters I had the opportunity to have an “elevator conversation” with Mike about some of his perceptions about astrobiology. I told him I thought his comment about the vagueness of astrobiology’s questions was a fair one, but there was a good reason. Astrobiology is a new field, barely a decade old. Some of its component fields are older-most notably study of the diversity of life on Earth and exploration of the solar system-but these came together with more recently maturing areas such as the detection and study of planets around other stars to enable NASA to start the astrobiology program in the mid 1990s. I likened development of astrobiology in the past decade to the development of planetary science in the 1960s. Planetary science did not exist as a field in the late 1950s. A few astronomers focused on what most of their colleagues regarded as nuisance objects at best, but that was about it.

The space age brought a new set of tools to bear on study of the planets and other bodies in the solar system and a new field was born. As the 1960s began, the questions of planetary science were pretty vague. They were mostly along the lines of “what’s out there?” By the mid 1970s we had flown past Mercury and Venus, flown by and orbited Mars, flown past Jupiter, and of course orbited and returned samples from human landings on the Moon. The Soviet Union had added a landing on Venus as well as robotic lunar sample return. The questions of planetary science had gone from “what’s out there?” to “how did the planets get to be the way they are?” And this question in turn devolved into many questions of geology, atmospheric science, magnetospheric physics, and their many subfields and overlaps.

I told Mike that, in my view, astrobiology was nearing the end of its first decade of defining questions. What does our knowledge of the diversity of life on Earth tell us about the habitability of other environments in the solar system? What factors underlie the diversity of planetary system architectures and which architectures may include habitable planets? How can the study of meteorites help us understand the processes whose effects we observe in circumstellar disks? These questions and others like them were either unasked before the 1990s or the connections between disciplines that are implicit to their formulation had been made only weakly at best.

Today scientists across all of the disciplines involved have come together twice to formulate roadmaps for astrobiology, and numerous conferences and workshops have been held to present results and refine the questions being asked. The NAI has made major contributions, as have other elements of the astrobiology program and many space flight mission teams both in the US and abroad.

Defining the questions of astrobiology has required overcoming the communication barriers between fields as diverse as microbiology, planetary geology, and stellar astronomy. Today there is a cadre of scientists who have learned the language and concepts of colleagues with whom a decade or two earlier they might have found little in common, and there is a new generation of graduate students and postdocs who have been “brought up” learning from their peers in other fields.

The result of all of this is a growing understanding of what questions to ask and how to go about seeking answers. But this definition of the field is far from over. There are disciplines, cosmology for example, that are still not generally considered part of astrobiology. But some cosmologists ask clearly astrobiological questions, and I expect that astrobiological questions about the nature of the universe as a whole will become increasingly better defined.

So my pitch to Mike was “yes, the questions of astrobiology have been vaguer than those in some older disciplines, but we’ve spent a decade defining the questions and we’ve made a lot of progress.” He invited me to come back and tell him more and I assured him I would.

But I don’t think that convincing Mike and others in high places of the validity and quality of astrobiology’s scientific content will be enough. As Mike has pointed out repeatedly, there is lots of good science that NASA could support. But the agency doesn’t have enough resources to do everything that the community would like, and NASA’s priorities are being determined at the highest levels of the US government. So choices must be made, and one important factor is relevance to NASA’s priorities.

There are at least two ways that the astrobiology community can address the question of relevance to NASA. One is by being involved in developing the missions NASA plans to fly in the next 10-15 years. These include both robotic and human missions to the Moon that are central to the Vision for Space Exploration as well as robotic missions in all the areas of space and Earth science. This has of course been happening, but can be broadened, particularly in the area of lunar missions.

The second way is by demonstrating that astrobiology opens opportunities that are so compelling that they can affect NASA’s priorities. The greatest past example of this is no doubt the exploration of Mars. Although the potential for humans to one day live on Mars has always given it a special place in space exploration circles, our current emphasis on robotic Mars exploration is clearly driven by questions of life. As one wag put it, “without astrobiology, Mars is just another planet.” Even in the current severely constrained budgetary environment, compelling arguments have the power to sway opinions and change minds.

So yes, astrobiology faces great challenges. But we have powerful content and a dedicated community to address those challenges. I would like to hear your thoughts. Feel free to e-mail me at I look forward to continuing this dialogue with all of you.

SpaceRef staff editor.