NASA Astrobiology Program

Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 4) Astrobiology 2.0

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
May 16, 2006
Filed under , ,
Saving Astrobiology at NASA (Part 4) Astrobiology 2.0

Astrobiology 2.0

Suggestions to the Astrobiology Community:

As I mentioned earlier, the original astrobiology program at NASA was propelled into existence, in great part, by the ALH84001 announcement and the media hoopla that followed. Much of what the original astrobiology planners thought should be included in astrobiology was already being done elsewhere. Besides, when the White House says “robots only” and “don’t talk about human missions to Mars or anywhere else”, the urgency to develop an all-encompassing research paradigm appropriate for a robust human/robotic exploration “vision” just isn’t there.

Well, that all supposedly changed when George Bush walked onto the podium at NASA Headquarters in January 2004. Yet, looking at what the President said about astrobiology research topics and what NASA is doing about them, you’d think that the White House didn’t mean what it said, has changed its mind, or that different factions within the executive branch have varying interpretations as to what was meant – rather than what was said. In any case, this issue doesn’t rise above the noise level when you are confronting global issues on a daily basis.

To be fair, Mike Griffin asked for billions more than he got for FY 2007 and the White House – OMB and OSTP in particular – while generous with expansive rhetoric – have backed off on their pledge to fund the VSE in a manner that would allow the full vision to be implemented. Moreover, the Space Shuttle continues to drain scarce resources as NASA tries to retire it once and for all. There is not enough money to pay for everything – and something has to give. Mike Griffin has made it abundantly and unapologetically clear that CEV development trumps science – and that he is pursuing a course of action that is consistent with that task.

Alas, the process whereby these funding decisions have been made is elusive, at best. The dismissive comments made by both Mike Griffin and Mary Cleave with regard to astrobiology certainly give the impression that they do not see this portion of the original VSE as being as important as other portions. If they need to cut a program – and can cut a program – to use funds to fix one with more political glamour – they will do so.

That doesn’t mean that people in the astrobiology community have to accept this as the final answer on the topic. Take Mike Griffin’s advice: complain – and do so early and often. Continue to use the media, Congress and any other venue where your concerns can be heard.

But at the same time, don’t just seek to get funds put back simply because they were taken away. If that is the only approach you can think of then be patient: there are a lot of people already in line ahead of you with the same generic gripe. Instead, use this opportunity as a wake up call. Seek to re-justify why astrobiology is important in the first place. This should not be coined just in terms of how many dollars go to which congressional district. Every project does that – and NASA concerns are often down in the weeds when it comes to issues of budget cuts that members of Congress need to deal with.

Astrobiologists need to come up with intrinsic reasons why astrobiology should not only be funded at promised levels – but indeed, why it shouldn’t get even more money. A budget increase? Sure – why not? if you think astrobiology is worth a budget increase then say so – and say why. And avoid too many comparisons to other people’s budgets. That turns into whining rather quickly here in Washington.

Astrobiology emerged at a time when NASA was in a state of flux and ARC and other field centers were faced with possible closure or drastic cutbacks. The community that formed around this nascent program at ARC turned adversity and uncertainty into opportunity and built a rich program out of that chaos. Now tough times are here again. Take a hard look at astrobiology and don’t be afraid to respond to this challenge by looking at ways to make it more efficient as well as more relevant to the President’s stated vision.

Recall that NASA has all but obliterated fundamental life science. Many of the things that astrobiologists had hoped to draw upon in that arena are now gone. Much of it is still needed. The same goes for research in a number of other disciplines as diverse as Earth, space, planetary, and solar science as well as spacecraft design, life support, software engineering, and many other areas.

As Jill Tarter said, astrobiology is the science of exploration. Its time to take that astute observation and firmly and completely transform it into reality once and for all.

NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Space Operations Mission Directorate, and Science Mission Directorate are supposed to be coming up with a science plan for exploration – one that looks at current needs and capabilities and maps them against what will be needed to implement the VSE.

They sure are taking their time in doing this – and killing valuable programs before they even have a plan in place to guide the making of such decisions. This clearly suggests that science is not the driver that Mike Griffin would have you think it is – rather it is an after thought. That must change.

NASA claims that it intends to open this process up to a broader audience at some point. That point should be now. More closed workshops will simply yield a rehashing of obvious issues when real plans should be drafted – to guide the preparation of real budgets.

Despite public statements that science planning is under way it is sure hard to see any progress. You can’t get ESMD and SOMD to publicly explain why the Centrifuge Facility was cut (other than funding) or how the two directorates are cooperating to use the ISS for exploration research (as specifically mandated by the President). Similarly no evidence has emerged as to how ESMD and SMD are creating the science for lunar and Mars exploration other than a few PowerPoint slides from a closed workshop held a few weeks ago.

When Mary Cleave cancelled the Dawn mission – the reasons for doing so were not clear and the decision was reversed a scant few weeks later – for reasons that make the first decision look foolish. Then her deputies ask for an audience with the astrobiology community (with her approval, one would think) and tell the audience that the cuts will be partially reversed only to find out later that this is not – and never was – the case. If there actually is a formal decision making process at SMD this sure doesn’t speak too highly about the way it functions.

And when the Administrator of NASA insults the chairman of the Space Studies Board at the National Academy of Sciences – and the work that this committee does – you have to wonder whether science is a priority. Mike Griffin may not see science as his first priority but he is a very smart man and he knows that other people do. Indeed, in that same email Griffin said “The next step out is the Moon. We’re going to get, and probably already are getting, the same criticisms as for ISS. This is the “why go to the Moon?” theme.”

That was November 2005. This issue is now being addressed for all of NASA’s science programs.

You created astrobiology. Forces at NASA now seek to undermine all of that hard work. Fight back. Make astrobiology better than it was. If you do not take the initiative no one will do it for you. If you don’t try you have no one to blame but yourself.

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

Rise up. Be heard. Make a difference.


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) 🖖🏻