NASA Continues To Hide Its Astrobiology Program

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NASA's Hidden Astrobiology Program

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has an extensive Program Officers list of contact information for all of its research programs. Virtually everything SMD does has a contact listed - except Astrobiology. The word is not mentioned at all - even though many of its sub topics are mentioned. NASA issues research solicitations for "Astrobiology" yet they can't be bothered to tell people who to contact for the programs managed under "Astrobiology" at NASA?

Oh yes - it has been a week and no one from NASA SMD, PAO, JPL, etc. has responded to my inquiry to explain why JPL and GSFC avoid the use of the word "Astrobiology" when referring to missions overtly focused on Astrobiology research. See "NASA's Science Mission Directorate Has An Issue With Certain Words"

While I am on this topic last week NASA issued this release "NASA Adds Return Sample Scientists to Mars 2020 Leadership Team" which says "the Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of past microbial life..." Yes folks, that is "Astrobiology". The JPL and NASA HQ PAO folks just cannot bring themselves to mention NASA's Astrobiology program or the discipline of "Astrobiology". Searching for life on other worlds is what NASA's Astrobiology program is chartered to do. Read the reports from the National Academy of Sciences and NASA ROSES solicitations and you will see. Read NASA's own websites and you will see what the agency defines Astrobiology as being. Indeed, one of the two scientists mentioned, Tanja Bosak, is part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. But does anyone bother to mention this? No.

And FWIW as an actual former NASA biologist, this stock phrase of NASA JPL's PAO folks "signs of past microbial life" is goofy. Are you only looking for microbial evidence? What if the only biosignatures the Mars 2020 rover finds are chemical in nature with no remaining or obvious structural fossils? How will NASA know if the past life was microbial i.e. unicellular or multi-cellular? This is another planet so what may have once lived there might not even fit the terrestrial classification of "microbial". What if viral forms are what existed - they are acellular (i.e. not composed of cells) and not considered to be "microbes" - even though some of them can be as large as cellular life i.e. "microbes". What if NASA finds bones or exoskeletal remains? Or trails made by larger living things as they moved? They are not "microbial" in nature so will NASA's rover not see them? And what if the rover finds evidence of recent/current life? It does have that ability even if it is indirect. NASA press statements suggest that NASA is not interested in that either.

I would hope that that answer is "of course we're interested in whatever we find on Mars". OK, then say so. I can understand the hesitance to say that the Mars 2020 rover mission has the ability to find extant life when that is not its explicit purpose. Why not just say "evidence of past life?" Why use this odd "past microbial life" phrase? Otherwise it sounds like NASA has already decided what sort of life was on Mars before ever having seen any evidence of it - and that this is all that the agency cares to think about.

Missions searching for evidence of life on another world have the potential to for paradigm-shifting and sociologically explosive repercussions. One would think that the agency could get its act together as to what you call things and not ignore the people who actually do the core research that serves as the purpose of your missions. If NASA is incapable of making internal sense of what it is doing, then how can NASA expect the public to fully grasp what NASA is doing?

Within the next year or so there could be as many as four rovers operating on Mars with overt Astrobiology-related missions: Mars Curiosity, Mars 2020, ExoMars/Rosalind Franklin, and China's rover. Nothing like this has ever happened before on another world. Again, one would think that there'd be some sort of coordinated effort to show the country and the world that we're really dialing up the search for life on Mars - past and/or present - and in so doing, use the globally-accepted name for the the discipline wherein such research is conducted i.e. "Astrobiology".

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