Status Report

Statement by Baruch S. Blumberg at the Opening of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe

By SpaceRef Editor
November 30, 2006
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Statement by Baruch S. Blumberg at the Opening of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe

The following statement was made by Dr. Barry Blumberg, former Director of the NAI, at the opening of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. It is such a good summary of the value and power of astrobiology that I felt it merited wider distribution through the NAI Newsletter. – Carl Pilcher Director, NAI

Astrobiology is an exciting new scientific program and discipline that has been initially funded and encouraged by NASA. Today, we celebrate the formation of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, a major effort by a non-governmental institution to further this important field in cooperation with NASA and other institutions. A major decrease in NASA funding for Astrobiology has recently been proposed. The establishment of the Sagan Center demonstrates the interest of the scientific community in this new science for discovery and research and, we hope, will encourage continued and increased government and other support.

The President’s Vision for Space Exploration requires astrobiology as a major, if not principle, science support. The National Research Council report, An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs, and NASA’s Advisory Council noted that astrobiology informs many of NASA’s missions and has a powerful appeal to students.

Rarely, if ever, has a federal R&D program sparked such broad impact in only a decade. Astrobiology science and/or educational activities exist at some level in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in Puerto Rico. Astrobiology research can be found at 38 of the nation’s top 50 research universities and in 222 research institutions nationwide. The quality of the science in astrobiology is impressive. There were approximately 150 senior scientists in the NASA Astrobiology Institute in the early 2000’s. Of these, there were 22 members of the National Academy of Science. This high percentage ranks the Institute with the most advanced scientific and engineering universities. Perhaps even more impressive was the enthusiasm of the young students who are studying science because of their interest in astrobiology.

Astrobiology seeks to understand the characteristics of life and habitable environments using the methods of biology, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, oceanography, medicine, and other disciplines that will help us to recognize biospheres that might be quite different from our own. This includes studying the conditions under which life can be sustained, life’s phylogeny, and the effects of the space environment on living systems. These are all essential for the proposed Moon and Mars missions. Such fundamental questions require long term stable funding for astrobiology and, in particular, for the development of appropriate instrumentation.

There is concern in the scientific community about the maintenance of funding for astrobiology. Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Physics at the University, of Arizona in Tucson, and a senior member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has noted that we are now in the midst of a flood of new space science missions that pertain to astrobiology. They include the rovers and orbiters at Mars; Stardust, NASA’s Comet Sample Return Mission; [Cassini at] Titan and Enceladus, the moon of [Saturn] that may contain liquid water; and the discovery of many new extrasolar planets. He adds that at his home institution the vast majority of prospective graduate students cite astrobiology as a key draw in choosing a graduate career in planetary science. These are compelling reasons for supporting and growing astrobiology now.

The Astrobiology program has in a short time generated great interest in the academic and student communities. Two new scientific journals were started, undergraduate and graduate programs enhanced and increased, astrobiology institutes established in other countries based in part on their associations with [the NASA Astrobiology Institute] (NAI) and other US institutions. In addition, many young people have been attracted to science by space research and astrobiology. The Sagan Center will help to stimulate the increasing interest in this field in conjunction with government and other institutional collaborations.

SpaceRef staff editor.