Astrobiology (general)

“What The Hell Is Astrobiology?” Asks The Secret Service

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
April 4, 2000
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“What The Hell Is Astrobiology?” Asks The Secret Service

Day One at the Astrobiology Science Conference

Last Sunday evening, President Clinton’s airplane landed at Moffett Field adjacent to NASA’s Ames Research Center. This is a standard procedure each time the President visits the San Francisco Bay area. In opening the First Astrobiology Science Conference, ARC Center director Harry McDonald noted that he was among the official greeting party as the President arrived. At one point, as everyone waited for the President to emerge from Air Force One, McDonald said he heard a somewhat frantic message over one of the Secret Service radios. Apparently the Secret Service had stopped one of the conference attendees and were radioing in to their command center asking “What the hell is Astrobiology?” as they attempted to verify the individual’s identity. McDonald thought this coincidence was an apt way to start off the conference.

This coincidence was indeed relevant. McDonald said that he thought that this meeting was happening at a time that is a watershed in the development of this new interdisciplinary endeavor. McDonald noted that unlike previous astrobiology meetings that focused on asking basic questions and the science that would be done, this conference would be the presentation of actual research results.

Looking ahead to upcoming events, McDonald said that NASA ARC is looking to expand the activities of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) which is hosted at NASA ARC. According to McDonald, ARC is looking to issue a new CAN (Cooperative Agreement Notice) that would call for proposals out of which an additional 3 to 4 additional NAI members would be chosen. ARC is also looking at developing a new initiative for instrumentation as well as an initiative that would address the overlap of astrobiology with fundamental biology.

Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg, Director of the NAI, described astrobiology is a field that brings together people from many fields that would not ordinarily talk to each other, tearing down disciplinary walls in so doing. Curiously, at the same time, Blumberg described astrobiology as seeking to bring people together from other disciplines to forge a new discipline in its own right. ARC Space Science head David Morrison added that the meaning of astrobiology will be defined over time by virtue of the scientific content of what the astrobiologist research community does. Moreover, Morrison said that astrobiology will succeed or fail based upon how astrobiologists accomplish the tasks they have set for themselves.

According to Blumberg, the NAI was set up as basic science institute organization. It was meant to find out things we do not already know. He described astrobiology as covering a bewildering variety of issues ranging from planetary formation and the origin of organic molecules to the development of complex, and eventually sentient, life. He expressed a particular interest in learning when “prebiotic” chemistry becomes “biotic”.

Blumberg stressed that life on Earth is the only model we know. As such, we really need to understand life on Earth. This includes a pervasive interest in life in extreme environments and how these organisms and their environment have co-evolved. He found it interesting that astrobiology is very ecologically oriented, noting that it differed from the “one bug -one disease” paradigm that he and his medical colleagues were used to. He added that there were some inherently synergistic opportunities for astrobiology. Specifically, Blumberg said that the NAI was looking at nanotechnology as a way to enhance the design of planetary landers and orbiters as well as a new way to look for life.

Blumberg reiterated that this meeting is recognition of the emergence of astrobiology as a scientific discipline. He noted that AGU (American Geophysical Union) meetings have been held with special sessions on astrobiology -, as have other organizations. He added that he has been asked to write an editorial on astrobiology for Science magazine and that PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) will have a special issue about astrobiology and that he has been asked to write an overview article for them as well. In addition, a postdoctoral fellowship program has been announced and will be managed by NRC. The fellowships are for 1 year, renewable for 2 years. Applications are currently on the NRC and NAI websites.

Blumberg waxed philosophical for a few minutes. He said that astrobiologists are testing the hypothesis that life exists elsewhere. This won’t be something done overnight. He posed the question of what might happen if we look for a while but find none. Noting that it is hard to prove a negative, it might start to become difficult to continue to justify astrobiology research if, after a number of years, the results were negative. In pondering the possible consequences, Blumberg said (in his opinion) that not fining life might “slow down the Copernican revolution- one where humans have been removed away from centrality”. He suggested that such a non-discovery might move us back towards the center of things with regards to how we see our place in the universe.

Blumberg thought it important to note that we (humans) are the ones looking for life. He feels that astrobiology is a generational endeavor. Noting that individuals might do some experiments in short term, other research activities may take much longer. Blumberg feels that the overall projects – especially those requiring space missions – take more time than one person’s career – perhaps even more than one lifetime. As such, Blumberg feels that there is a need to pass on these ideas and the conduct of large-scale astrobiology research programs in a fashion not unlike the building of mediaeval cathedrals. He suggested that astrobiology be viewed as a mutli-generational transfer of knowledge such that today’s ideas can be realized in the future.

Lynn Rothschild, the conference’s organizer and an evolutionary biologist at NASA ARC described astrobiology is being one of the most fascinating things she’s ever been involved with. She feels that it resonates with people from many backgrounds because it seeks to answer humanity’s oldest questions i.e. where did we come from?, why are we here?, where are we going?. Astrobiology takes these old questions and seeks to answer them by taking cutting edge science and using fresh approaches. In so doing, astrobiology has liberated people from the parochial boundaries that often exists between disciplines.

Michael Meyer, the Astrobiology Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters described NASA’s previously existing program in exobiology as having been expanded substantially as astrobiology developed and added that a previous lack in the ability to develop the needed instrumentation needed for astrobiology has been addressed by recent budget increases in the President’s budget.

Rothschild said that she had fought an innate tendency to organize the program along evolutionary lines focusing instead on fundamental issues that underlie life itself. She described water as being the quintessential basis – the Sine Qua Non – for life as we know it – and therefore as the starting point for the conference’s program.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻