NASA Astrobiology Program

Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 3) Fighting Back

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
May 15, 2006
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Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 3) Fighting Back

Fight back or just give up

The space life science community, never known for taking risks or speaking out on controversial issues, either did not respond to the cuts when they started – or tried in vain to protest the cuts after they had been made. When they did start to speak out it was too late. Termination letters had been sent, and support contractors had been laid off. The unfortunate aspect of this lack of activism on the part of space life science community is that the signals that something bad was on the way were quite noticeable well in advance of cuts made in the past year.

Gone or soon to be cut are all of the fundamental research programs that seek to understand the nature of how living things respond to the microgravity environment of space. Also cut are many of the very human physiology research programs needed to quantify the risk to humans during prolonged travel to destinations spelled out by the President – most notably Mars.

The life science community did not totally shirk their responsibility however. One report issued by the NAS, a remnant of a larger roadmapping effort, “A Risk Reduction Strategy for Human Exploration of Space: A Review of NASA’s Bioastronautics Roadmap” makes it very clear that NASA needs to devote much more attention (not less) to human biology issues:

“The committee concludes that this emphasis on an applied research agenda for NASA bioastronautics is not without significant consequences and risks, especially given the relatively immature status of current countermeasure development. Further, the committee finds that the majority of projected BR countermeasures, mitigations, or other deliverables are in a nascent state of readiness (i.e., below the threshold for prioritization in bioastronautics research) and that the state of countermeasure development significantly lags the need. Current resources are unlikely to be sufficient to complete the BR mitigation plan in a time frame that enables the exploration class missions envisioned by NASA.”

These recommendations not withstanding, the life science community held an event on Capitol Hill recently which resulted in the blunt admission by NASA’s Carl Waltz that these cuts were not made for any reason other than the fact that there is not enough money. NASA did not even try to pretend that there was some strategic thinking involved. It saw money it could grab – and it did.

The astrobiology community, in sharp contrast, sprang into action almost immediately when word of the cuts became known. Testifying before Congress in March 2006, former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, Wes Huntress put it most eloquently:

“While the 2003 Solar System Decadal Report recommends that R&A be increased over this decade at a rate above inflation, the FY07 budget would reduce funding for R&A by 15% across the board. For reasons hard to fathom, one particular program, astrobiology, is targeted for a 50-percent reduction. Astrobiology was specifically named by the Decadal report as an important new component in the R&A program and is recognized even outside NASA as the agency’s newest and most innovative research program bringing biologists, geologists and space scientists together to understand the earliest life on Earth and how we might search for life elsewhere beyond our own planet.”

NASA’s Senior Scientist for astrobiology, Carl Pilcher, also sees the value of astrobiology to the VSE. In a March 2006 letter to the astrobiology community Pilcher said:

“I continue to believe that astrobiology is not only at the heart of NASA science and the Vision for Space Exploration, but is also–in its breadth and interdisciplinary–representative of how science increasingly will be conducted in the 21st Century. NASA, through its development of astrobiology, has been a leader in this scientific transformation. The astrobiology community in turn is playing a transformative role as it advances our understanding of the potential for life to exist beyond Earth. I am proud of all that the community has achieved and I am confident that these achievements will continue. I ask for your understanding and support as we work through this difficult time.”

These comments were closely followed by statements from the Principal Investigators of the NASA astrobiology Institute and a notice to the astrobiology community by Nobel Laureate and former NASA astrobiology Institute director Baruch Blumberg and SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson which blasted these unwarranted and unexplained cuts to astrobiology – and urged the community to fight back.

Reacting to this outcry Griffin has left an avenue open. Again, recall that he told Nature magazine:

“If the community rises up and says it should be funded, we’ll rethink it.”

That is just what the astrobiology community has been doing.

A few weeks later, at the biennial Astrobiology Science Conference in Washington DC, the community was not shy about discussing the issue. In a town meeting called by NASA, Andrew Dantzler, Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA HQ told 700 astrobiologists that the proposed FY 2007 cuts in astrobiology did not sit well with the research community noting that “it was not a good shot [at a budget] – we could have done better”. He then said that based on input he had been receiving that it was “clear that we should money back [into astrobiology]” and that “we have decided to put money back – and we will be doing that as soon as we can.” Carl Pilcher repeated this claim at the conference later that day.

Pilcher went on to detail how these funds would be restored – but was unable to explain why cuts were made in the first place (despite being asked repeatedly to do so). This statement by Pilcher was made moot barely a day later when a Science Mission Directorate monthly meeting at NASA HQ decided that no additional funds will be given to astrobiology. In early May 2006, speaking at a NAS workshop on astrobiology, Pilcher could only say that this matter was tied up in a larger discussion of funding at NASA Headquarters.

Meanwhile, the science community as a whole has been responding – at NASA’s request. At an event in early May, the space science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council heard from a variety of discipline representatives. This resulted in four reports – dealing with planetary scienceastrophysicsEarth science, and heliophysics.

Again, the community was blunt in its assessment of what NASA wanted to do to astrobiology. The planetary science report notes:

“The cuts to the astrobiology Program, apparently made in the absence of advice from the scientific community, are particularly damaging. First, even if a 50% cut to an R&A program were warranted on scientific grounds, because many awards are for multiple years, the implementation of such a reduction over 1 or even 2 years means that many of the research projects that will be terminated, sharply reduced, or simply not started will include some of those most highly rated by the peer review process. Moreover, the central scientific themes of astrobiology underpin strategic plans for the exploration of Mars and the outer solar system, inform plans for the renewed exploration of the Moon, and constitute the basis for elements of the plans of the Astrophysics Division to characterize the habitability of planets around other stars. Targeting the astrobiology Program for anomalously large cuts is sufficiently inconsistent with the rationale enunciated for a broad sweep of SMD programs that budgetary restoration for that program should receive immediate attention.”

As it stands right now, astrobiology is being cut because money is needed elsewhere. No other rationale has yet to be provided for these cuts by NASA leading everyone to assume that indeed there never was one in the first place – other than the search for money to pay for human space flight. Moreover, the trust level is at an all time low after Pilcher/Dantzler’s announcement of funding restoration was torpedoed within a day. No tangible hope exists that Mike Griffin is going to budge on this issue unless external forces cause him to do so.

As such, the astrobiology community needs to give Griffin cause to do so.


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) 🖖🏻