NASA Astrobiology Program

Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 2) Mapping the Way

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
May 15, 2006
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Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 2) Mapping the Way

Heading Out on a Journey Before the Map is Complete

After the President’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in 2004 a series of preliminary efforts lead to a rather broad series of roadmapping efforts. The dozen or so topical plans would be developed by the community, self-vetted, reviewed by NASA and then sent off to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a final review. The net output of this process was to be an overall scientific roadmap for the VSE due for public release in late 2005. This roadmapping process proceeded unevenly. Some roadmaps were focused and to the point. Others were large, ponderous, and confused. Some never even got off the ground.

Enter Mike Griffin. All he saw was wheel spinning and little progress. Absent any formal advisory structure (he had already disbanded the NASA Advisory Council – NAC) Griffin sought to bring the roadmapping process to a quicker and more focused conclusion. Some roadmaps continued and resulted in reports from the NAS. Others simply evaporated. In the case of a report dealing with Space Station research Griffin showed his contempt for the Academy (and NAS Space Studies Board Chair Len Fisk) while at the same time acknowledging that their concerns had to be dealt with in an email sent to his senior management wherein he said:

“I’ve read the report, and there is not much good in it for us. Not surprising, however, coming from Len Fisk … The kind of criticism we’re receiving in connection with the ISS, in the report Trish references, needs to be addressed for ISS, and needs to be “headed off at the pass” for the Moon.”

As 2005 closed NASA’s budget for FY 2007 was being developed. Absent a functioning NAC or any other scientific advisory mechanism Griffin was left with only fragments of the original roadmapping process. Nonetheless he went ahead and made significant decision about science as he prepared his budget. The White House responded with much less money than Griffin had wanted. Despite his public pledge not to take one dime from science to fund human exploration, he took billions of dollars worth of dimes out of science to fund human exploration.

When the budget was released it had a dual impact. Not only would FY 2007 science budgets be slashed but some cuts were retroactive to FY 2006. Despite universal and continued howls of protest Griffin could not explain why specific cuts were made other than to say that he needed money to fund human exploration. No rationale was offered whereby programs and projects were prioritized for preservation, cutting, or termination. Griffin et al simply took money from projects because they needed to – and because they could.

This was all rather confusing. Griffin was quick to affirm his loyalty to the President’s Vision for Space Exploration and the implementation thereof. But Griffin had either forgotten what the President had said – or was conveniently ignoring portions of it – the portions that involved projects he wished to drain money from.

NASA rushed ahead with its plans for human exploration and released the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) in early 2006. This large document was actually a series of trade studies bound together with selection criteria and preferred options for getting humans back to the Moon. Alas, the budgets for the permanent lunar bases Griffin’s team envisioned (mentioned no where in the President’s speech) was nowhere close to being in place. As for the science to be done on the Moon, NASA only had general ideas. To be certain the Moon offers a vast potential in terms of scientific, operational – and perhaps even commercial activity – but NASA hadn’t gotten to that part.

Biologists often refer to the way things look in the living world as adhering to the concept that “form follows function”. Things have evolved their various physiology and morphology based on what they need to do to survive and reproduce. Biologists tend to look at engineering that way when asked to do so. In the case of the ESAS, NASA had the process reversed – as did the Apollo program i.e. you design the hardware first and then figure out what you can do with it. This is a risky way to do things. I saw it with my own eyes when I worked on the Space Station Freedom program where the unofficial motto, taken from the film “Field of Dreams” was “if you build it they will come.” If you don’t have the end usage of what you are designing clearly in mind you run a clear risk of ending up with something that is not as useful – scientifically – as it could otherwise have been. Moreover, with no firm starting point in terms of requirements you can never fully justify things when budget overruns inevitably call for things to be scaled back.

This disconnect apparently started to dawn on NASA such that it began to assemble groups of experts in late 2005/early 2006 to figure out what the science of exploration should be. Given the funding constraints he faces, Mike Griffin more or less put anything that was not directly related to lunar research on a very distant back burner. Mars-related research could wait. If something on the ISS or on Earth did not directly relate to returning humans to the Moon it was also swept off of the table.

An invitation-only workshop comprised of 200 space experts from around the U.S. and the world was convened in Washington, DC in April 2006. While NASA did talk about the general tasks of this workshop and the general conclusions the assembled teams arrived at, release of the specific output of the workshop has not been announced. Another workshop – in late summer/early Fall 2006 – has been proposed wherein science issues will be addressed. At the end of the year some sort of plan is supposed to be in place. How or if it will be released is still not clear. Given the timing of its release it is likely that yet another budget will be developed sans an agreed-to set of scientific goals and objectives.

If this plan does manage to make it into existence by the end of 2006 it will have arrived a year later than perhaps it could have. Had Mike Griffin sought to focus the roadmaps – started under Sean O’Keefe – to a more definitive endpoint he could have had a much more solid scientific basis for both the development of his ESAS – and some vastly improved guidance for how to make budget decisions for the FY 2007 budget. Instead, the process has worked backwards with architecture and budget decisions being made and then science being called upon to adjust to the large gapping holes and numerous disconnects that resulted from this backwards approach.

Meanwhile the scientific community as a whole was rather vocal. So was Congress. Mike Griffin and Mary Cleave in particular got an earful more than once. He seems to be getting the message albeit after decisions have been put out as being final as far as the White House is concerned.

In as far as making cuts to science goes, Science magazine noted:

“… and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in accepts a portion of the blame. “I made a mistake,” Griffin told NASA’s new science advisory panel. “I made commitments in advance that I wasn’t able to keep,” referring to his 2005 promise not to shift money from science to human space flight. NASA’s current budget request would trim more than $3 billion from space science through 2011.”

Specifically, in regard to cuts made to astrobiology, Nature quotes Griffin from a recent Senate hearing as saying:

“I did think astrobiology was less important than traditional space science. It had less intrinsic subject matter to it, and was less advanced. If the community rises up and says it should be funded, we’ll rethink it.”

The National Academy of Science has weighed in on this topic – and they do not like what they see going on at NASA. Nor do they agree with Griffin’s dismissive assessment of astrobiology. Specifically, in their recent report “An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs” with regard to cuts made in astrobiology they do not mince any words:

“[Page 20]: “The decadal surveys for astrophysics and for solar system exploration both embraced astrobiology as a key component of their programs, with the questions encompassed by astrobiology serving as overarching themes for the programs as a whole. The missions put forward in the solar system exploration survey are all key missions in astrobiology, whether they are labeled as such or not. And issues and missions related to astrobiology represent one of the key areas of interest identified in the astronomy and astrophysics communities.

Astrobiology provides the intellectual connections between otherwise disparate enterprises. NASA’s astrobiology program creates an integrated whole and supports the basic interdisciplinary nature of the field. Further, the Vision is, at its heart, largely an astrobiology vision with regard to the science emphasis. In developing the future of the program, the missions actually feed forward from the basic science. Astrobiology is just beginning the type of synthesis and integration that will allow it to provide science input for future mission development. Without it, the science and the scientific personnel will not be in place to support the missions when they do fly.

At a time of increasing desire for cross-disciplinary programs, astrobiology represents an outstanding example of the development of a successful new interdisciplinary area.”

What The President Actually Told NASA to Do

All of what Mike Griffin does happens with the direction and approval of the White House. As such, you’d think that this Administration – one concerned about its image (as all administrations are) – would not want to be seen as being contradictory. Have a look at the fact sheet “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery” that accompanied President Bush’s January 2004 speech at NASA Headquarters wherein he announced the Vision for Space Exploration. It is just dripping with astrobiology themes:

“Mars and Other Destinations

  • Conduct robotic exploration of Mars to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the solar system, and to prepare for future human exploration;
  • Conduct robotic exploration across the solar system for scientific purposes and to support human exploration. In particular, explore Jupiter’s Moons, asteroids and other bodies to search for evidence of life, to understand the history of the solar system, and to search for resources;
  • Conduct advanced telescope searches for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars;
  • Develop and demonstrate power generation, propulsion, life support, and other key capabilities required to support more distant, more capable, and/or longer duration human and robotic exploration of Mars and other destinations; and
  • Conduct human expeditions to Mars after acquiring adequate knowledge about the planet using robotic missions and after successfully demonstrating sustained human exploration missions to the Moon.”

Indeed, the speech itself was quite clear of the value the President placed on the search for life elsewhere:

“Telescopes — including those in space — have revealed more than 100 planets in the last decade alone. Probes have shown us stunning images of the rings of Saturn and the outer planets of our solar system. Robotic explorers have found evidence of water — a key ingredient for life — on Mars and on the Moons of Jupiter. At this very hour, the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is searching for evidence of life beyond the Earth.”

The importance of space life science is also clearly stated in the speech. With regard to the future use of the International Space Station: the President said:

“We will focus our future research aboard the station on the long-term effects of space travel on human biology. The environment of space is hostile to human beings. Radiation and weightlessness pose dangers to human health, and we have much to learn about their long-term effects before human crews can venture through the vast voids of space for months at a time. Research on board the station and here on Earth will help us better understand and overcome the obstacles that limit exploration. Through these efforts we will develop the skills and techniques necessary to sustain further space exploration.”

Yet despite this clear direction from the President on issues directly related to space life science and astrobiology, NASA Headquarters seeks to eliminate or severely cut back space life science and astrobiology research – just at the time that it is needed to help define the very frontiers that Mike Griffin’s spaceships are supposed to explore. Indeed, in cutting back this fundamental and enabling research, Mike Griffin is ignoring the direction given to him by the President. But he is not doing this alone.


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) 🖖🏻