Astrobiology (general)

Prepared Comments by Keith Cowing at the Second Astrobiology Science Conference, NASA Ames Research Center

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
April 10, 2002
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Prepared Comments by Keith Cowing at the Second Astrobiology Science Conference, NASA Ames Research Center
Keith Cowing at NASA Desert RATS 2009 — Matt Reyes

Since tonight’s topic is SciFi – specifically, time machines, and we’re at an Astrobiology conference, I thought I’d borrow Dr. Davies time machine for a few minutes to go back in time just a little way – to the time when I was a kid in the 1960’s – and using the knowledge base of the day look at the topics of some of the talks that we’ll be hearing this week.

Organisms that live at a pH of 1. Time lapse images of star formation. Organisms that live miles under Earth’s surface in rocks, in deep ocean thermal vents, inside nuclear reactors. An ever-growing list of planets that circle other stars. Organisms whose genome can be blown apart by massive doses of radiation only to reassemble it a short time later. Meteorites thrown from one planet to another with the possibility of carrying fossils and perhaps even carrying life between planets. Bacteria smaller than thought possible, prions …

Mention of these things in the 1960’s in a scientific meeting would have been career limiting. If you did so at a SciFi convention in another hotel you’d have been right at home.

Today’s student poster topic is the core premise of yesterday’s SciFi novel.

Let’s turn the dial on the time machine ahead a bit so as to find to me sitting in an introductory ecology class in the mid 1970’s. We had been taught that no ecosystem could function without primary producers who got their energy from the sun. NASA’s John Rummel likes to remind people that more or less as it became clear that the Viking landers had found no conclusive evidence of life on the surface of Mars, we were finding life in a place on Earth where it had no right to be – if you went with the prevailing dogma, that is. The news of these deep hydrothermal vents broke more or less as I was sitting there in class with a textbook that said that what I was reading in the newspapers was not possible.

I am one of those people who thinks about SciFi a lot. Good SciFi – Bad SciFi – it doesn’t matter. It was there as my world views were formed as a child and has had an indelible effect upon how I view things – for better or worse. Between the time I was 2 and when I turned 14 humanity went from zero spaceflight capability to putting humans on the moon.

My parents grew up in the 1920’s and 30’s and referred to Buck Rogers (along with considerable disbelief) as the Apollo missions landed on the moon. To me, my first vision of spaceflight was one where quantum leaps were to be expected. This was something that speculation – in the form of SciFi – and NASA publications had led me to expect. That expectation took a firm hold of me and hasn’t left me – or many of my generation.

If only reality was consistent with those visions we’d have had human on Mars in 1981 – this was often uttered in the same breath as the predictions that humans would walk on the moon before the end of the decade. Back then SciFi often lagged behind reality – indeed official NASA publications would have served as the core of the plot for a good SciFi novel.

Not any more – or so it would seem. Indeed, during the Clinton Administration NASA was ordered NOT to discuss humans to Mars. This was akin to telling Columbus to keep his mouth shut about his travel plans for 1493 and (by the way) to consider the Azores as his next destination.

During the past 5 or so years, If you ever asked a NASA official to comment about sending humans to Mars in a public forum, (with the exception of Chris McKay of course) they’d be forced to spend 2/3rd of their answer introducing caveats so as to be certain that no one thought that they had a stealth Humans to Mars mission underway.

This doesn’t sit well with someone like me who grew up expecting SciFi to be a preview – not a pipe dream.

But I digress.

My analogies are sprinkled with Star Trek terminology. Imagine my delight last Fall when I stood on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise at Paramount studios courtesy of a friend of mine who works there. My mind erased all of the plywood and other materials lying around. I was on the Enterprise.

I have often noted that this immense hangar where this conference is being held [Building 1] looks a lot like the aft end of James Kirk’s Enterprise – you know – the docking bay. Having just spent a week inside this hangar with my business partner building the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse I have, on at least a dozen occasions, taken the vast internal vista of this hangar and morphed it in my mind’s eye to become the interior of the Babylon 5 Space Station, one of Gerard O’Neill’s space colonies, and in keeping with the namesake of our greenhouse, Arthur Clarke’s gigantic Rama.

As I took pictures of the greenhouse from across the immense floor – with our little greenhouse swallowed up with the volumetric immensity of this place – I was reminded of the closing scenes from the films “Silent Running” and “Close Encounters”.

SciFi analogies are everywhere – especially a way cool places like this. You just have to have the right software loaded to see them.

This is not a new pastime for me. When I actually had a real job as a NASA civil servant, I had a giant cutaway engineering drawing on my office wall of Jean Luc Picard’s Enterprise for inspiration while my coworkers struggled to build something much simpler – the ISS.

Indeed, during many of my formal presentations at work, I often slipped a few SciFi charts in. One of my key responsibilities at the time was overseeing the integration of the Centrifuge Accommodation Module (CAM) onto the Space Station. The Centrifuge rotor will be 2.5 meters in diameter.

My extra charts depicted the 25 meter human rated centrifuge from the film “2001” A Space Odyssey. To be certain, I did this for giggles – but I also hoped that maybe such a departure from the verb-devoid bad English that is usually on these charts would spark a few of my disinterested colleagues to remember why we were all there in the first place.

To me, SciFi serves as an artistic framework that allows us to break the bounds of the known or the proven and wander through the possible – and even the absurdly impossible. Some of these visions are very compelling – some in a positive way – others in a negative way. Some of these visions don’t always translate correctly as they make the transition from fantasy to fact.

Take a look at the human cloning debate. Despite the attempt – on both sides of the issue – to deal with the facts of the matter, not a week doesn’t go by with a general news item that seems to think we can photocopy people and that they pop out of a tank with a compete set of memories. I am sure the upcoming Star Wars movie “Attack of the Clones” won’t help things.

Moving to the related topic of genetic engineering and the ill-informed commentary gets even wilder often seeming to steal a page from the script of the classic film “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”.

As I said at the onset, I am one of those people who derive motivation from SciFi. Given the popularity of Star Wars, Star Trek, etc it would seem that the public does too.

SciFi – especially in the form of film – can convince us that what we see – even on a flat surface in a public theatre – is true. Sometimes, when done right, it can even educate – and inspire. Every now and then there are films and novels that make a serious attempt to tackle a topic – “2001”, “Contact”, “Deep Impact”, “Andromeda Strain” – and in so doing add something of educational value to the discussion.

More often, however, films and novels pander to a lower common denominator.

And they certainly have an effect: many polls taken of otherwise intelligent, well informed people would let you think that we never landed on the moon – thanks to the film “Capricorn One” and programming executives at Fox Television whose only significant contribution to culture is “The Simpsons”. By the way, the episode “Deep Space Homer” is my all time favorite.

Other polls suggest that a significant number of people think that we have already discovered extraterrestrial life (as such you can all go home now) and, moreover, that aliens walk among us.

In a recent press breakfast in Washington DC, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe recounted a visit to one of NASA ‘s field centers as part of his inaugural “getting to know you” whirlwind tour.

At one center, someone showed him an image that he thought was truly remarkable. In his words it was “A-MAZING” The response of his NASA guide was rather nonchalant. O’Keefe, who openly admits that he is not a rocket scientist (or any other kind) found this curious. Placing this incident into a broader context he said that NASA people have a whole bunch of amazing things to share – but they often don’t . Either they are bored by seeing the same amazing stuff every day – or they don’t think that people would find these things interesting.

O’Keefe has said that education is going to be a key aspect of what he sees NASA doing. His key advisors? His three kids aged 11-15.

Given budgetary belt tightening across the agency, everyone has to scramble to make certain that the budgeters see what is most important. These budget tensions are not going to go away any time soon. O’Keefe is going to be making his first policy speech on April 12th. As such, one would expect a premium to be paced on getting one’s program couched in the right way to assure its survival.

The following phrases will form the cornerstone of what O’Keefe will be saying. They even manage to have a bit of a SciFi edge to them:

The NASA Vision

To improve life here
To extend life to there
To find life beyond

The NASA Mission

To understand and protect our home
To explore the universe and search for life
To inspire the next generation of explorers
…as only NASA can

Sort of an ersatz Astrobiology Haiku, eh?

To be certain, NASA loves to come up with mission statements and visions and has a spotty track record when it comes to their actual implementation. That not withstanding, I don’t think I can imagine a more Astrobiology-friendly collection of words. As such, its your own damn fault if you folks can’t run with these words and gain some new ground.

I am not suggesting that you gear your research proposals or program plans to 12 year olds. However I am suggesting that you re-examine all of the tools you use to make your budget pitches and proposals. NASA’s Office of Space Science has a healthy set aside for education. Astrobiology has taken this requirement and expanded it much further such that most of what it does is infiltrated with public outreach and education.

Despite the superlative outreach efforts done by the Astrobiology community thus far, much more of this is needed.

My point – as it relates to this meeting?

You folks are at the cusp of transforming Sci-Fi to Sci-Fact every day. As you do so, you engage in all of the prime and proper processes that surround SCIENCE – a process that separates opinion from fact. That is well and good. Without it, we’d be back in the dark ages.

Acknowledging all of the caveats eloquently voiced by the late Carl Sagan in his book “The Demon Haunted World” I would still urge all of you to spend at least a few minutes every day dwelling in the world of SciFi. Or talk to your kids about it. Yea, it can be goofy, campy, and it may be filled with silly improbable plots written by someone who flunked Bio and Physics 101 – but it is the means whereby a vast majority of people get their ideas about the universe – especially kids.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming wild improbable dreams indeed, people who don’t know any better than to pursue improbable dreams are responsible for some of the most profound discoveries made in human knowledge. That’s how Kekule came up with the electron cloud view of the benzene ring – he had a dream of a snake biting its own tail.

So much of what you do remains stuck in meetings like these. A few intrepid science reporters manage to pull it out of you. Sometimes they even get it right.

You folks talk about microbes that breathe metal, the atmospheres of planets that circle other stars, and of sending probes to swim through Europan seas.

To quote Sean O’Keefe this stuff is A-MAZING.

SO much of this cool stuff never seems to make it out into the public arena. When it does, it is also parsed by public affairs offices who seem to have forgotten who their real audience is.

People can understand this stuff – you just need to adopt a new set of tools whereby to explain it.

Indeed, the next time you find yourself being interviewed, you might start with the line “remember the Star Trek episode when …”

Thank you.

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) 🖖🏻