Why the USA and NASA need astrobiology

By SpaceRef Editor
March 9, 2006
Filed under
Why the USA and NASA need astrobiology

I am an astrobiologist, for 50 years an astronomer, and before that a physicist. With my colleague and friend Roger Angel, we started the process of learning how to detect Earth-like planets in 1985. I am a co-author of the NASA booklet The Terrestrial Planet Finder. I have served with scientific and technical teams to develop that mission since 1995. I have been a professor of astronomy at U. Arizona for the last 30 years, and I became P.I. for the Arizona team (LAPLACE, Life And PLanets Astrobiology CEnter) in 2003.

As a professional who has moved my research area around many times, I have both been depressed and concerned about the difficulty my colleagues have in pulling together material that crosses many fields. Even with the advent of internet search engines, the problem remains that those who have been once educated seem averse to re-education, and internet material in another field seems like a foreign language to them. In Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, he points out that if he had put together all the experts needed to understand the main course of human history, they could not have put the story together, nor would he have understood the story. One person had to gather the answer, and become adequately multi-disciplinary in the process.

There are many complex issues that face our country and our world today. They cut across fields, and challenge many preconceptions that we have. They can be described by the deceptively simple question “What is available for the future of humanity?” This question has been posed as one of three big questions that are the core of astrobiology: How did we arise? Are there other life forms out there? and What are the options for humanity? They are, like Diamond’s question, multi-disciplinary issues, and since people like Diamond are rare, they require an educational process that allows the many people who will be needed to solve them, to think across disciplinary lines.

The first activity of my Astrobiology team was to hold a graduate student conference. Astrobiology has only been a coherent activity since 1998, and the students needed an opportunity to talk together about their science. At that meeting both the students and I noticed that there was a major distinction between the students who had been broadly educated in astrobiology during their graduate career and those who had not. One group could think across fields without difficulty. The other could not.

Last year the NASA Astrobiology Institute held an internal meeting to explore the range of research of Institute members. There were no specialist sessions. And the audience stayed for all the talks, astronomy, geology, biology and education. The success was jointly an activity of speakers who were learning to express their work without jargon, and an audience that was receptive to the range of topics. This is an ongoing learning experience. Astrobiology does not yet have all the educational answers, but it is headed in a direction that the United States needs, not only at the graduate level, but for undergraduates and high school students too.

I do not know whether astrobiologists will or will not get an opportunity to ask about “Life Out There” in the near future. Small missions that might occasionally fail while learning the techniques have been crowded out by Star Studded Monster missions, and these in turn have started to kill one another off in a battle for declining dollars. But I do know that there is a source of renewal available to all science through Astrobiology. And right now it is being strangled to death. The budget for the four Astrobiology activities has gone from $75M in 2005, and threatens to become $32M in 2007, or at that rate it seems more likely that the entire field will be scrapped. What a waste! What a tragic waste!

Neville J. Woolf

Professor of Astronomy
Director LAPLACE

SpaceRef staff editor.