“Private” planetary missions – go or no-go?

Recently The Daily Beast reported on a plan for a three-part privately funded mission) to look for evidence of life in the atmosphere of Venus. The reporter who produced this story, David Axe, is identified as someone who has covered war and politics. How a mission to Venus relates to his claimed areas of expertise is beyond me.

The Beast stated, “astrobiologists believe there could be life- or evidence of past life” in the clouds of Venus.

It would be more accurate to say that “some” astrobiologists believe this….

The idea that life might possibly exist in this particular extraterrestrial environment has been around for a while. While it has not been dismissed, it is not widely embraced in the astrobiology community. A recent flap (2020) over claims of the detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus – alleged to be possible evidence of biological activity there – has mostly come down to a consensus that, no, this is not evidence of life. This year’s biennial Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2022) featured a session of critiques of the claim of evidence of biological activity in the Venusian atmosphere. Very informative.

The Beast continued: “For all its promise as the place to make first-contact, Venus is a pretty low priority for the two space agencies in the world with the most resources for interplanetary missions.” There’s a good reason for this situation. Venus is a low priority for life-detection missions because the scientific consensus is that Mars, Europa (moon of Jupiter), and Enceladus (moon of Saturn) are more likely to be potentially habitable than the atmosphere of Venus is. Hence, spacefaring nations have life-detection missions in operation or in planning for these three targets.

Astronomer Dirk Schulze-Makuch told The Beast: “There hasn’t been a single life-detection mission since the 1970s, on Mars—even though technology and also environmental understanding of the neighboring planetary bodies has improved so much.” Well, perhaps technically correct. However, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, launched in 2011, was sent to the Red Planet, according to NASA, “to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support small life forms called microbes?” NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, launched in 2020, is searching for signs of ancient microbial life, “which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars,” according to the agency.

I can’t find any publicly available information about the cost of the Venus Life Finder Mission– whether financial or in-kind contributions, or both. It would be nice to know.

Venus Life Finder mission team lead Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told one reporter in 2020 that billionaire Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Foundation was contributing a “few hundred thousand” dollars to the mission. Rocket Lab claims to be providing the launch vehicle and the spacecraft. I have found no estimates of the value of Rocket Lab’s in-kind contributions of launch (the company’s Electron rocket, which, if I’m not mistaken, has yet to launch an interplanetary mission), spacecraft (the company’s Photon spacecraft), and any other contributions. Others on the project claim they are making “in-kind” contributions of their time and expertise.

Founded in 2006, Rocket Lab, it says, “designs and manufactures the Electron small orbital launch vehicle and the Photon satellite platform and is developing the Neutron 8-ton payload class launch vehicle. Since its first orbital launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle has become the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually and has delivered 149 satellites to space for private and public sector organizations, enabling operations in national security, scientific research, space debris mitigation, Earth observation, climate monitoring, and communications. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform has been selected to support NASA missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as the first private commercial mission to Venus.”

Breakthrough founder (and funder) Yuri Milner’s current net worth, according to Forbes, is about $7 billion. I don’t even want to know how he made that much money.  More power to him if he wants to fund space exploration missions. I can’t tell when the first of one of his projects might take off, to Venus, to Enceladus, or wherever. In recent years he was talking with NASA about a Space Act agreement that would provide him with access to NASA expertise that would enable his outfit (whatever that is) to prepare for a privately funded life-detection mission to Enceladus. As far as I can tell, nothing came of these discussions. Or the mission….

An “annex” to a Space Act “umbrella agreement” No. 26616, September 13, 2018, between the Breakthrough Starshot Foundation (Milner’s outfit) and NASA, stated: “Breakthrough seeks to access unique capabilities and expertise available only at NASA and its Centers,” for a privately funded flyby mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is considered to be potentially habitable.

Space News reported in 2018, “The agreement between NASA and Breakthrough involves no exchange of funds. NASA estimates its cost of carrying out its responsibilities under the agreement to be $72,384.”

As far as I can tell, nothing has come of this agreement.

So, is Yuri Milner a visionary, or a zealot? I lean toward zealot. Billions of dollars gives you lots of leverage, and access to the media.

In 2021, Milner published something he called a Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilization.”

I must note here that there is no monolithic “civilization” on Earth. Whose “civilization” is he talking about? Who gave Milner the right to speak for “civilization”?

In his “manifesto,” he wrote: “Human civilization, as a whole, has nothing resembling a shared mission. In the long term, that means we cannot thrive – or probably even survive. But what could such a mission be? People, nations, and cultures vary wildly. Where on Earth do we look for a common goal? Beyond Earth.”

How many people on Earth believe the human future lies beyond Earth?

More from the manifesto: He writes of “our mission.” Who is we, I’ll ask? “We are the Universe waking up. Opening its eyes after a fourteen-billion-year sleep. Beginning to know itself. To explore its form. To remember its past and imagine its future. To tell its story. We are a fragment of creation that knows what happened in the first second of its birth. Of all the atoms scattered from ancient stars, it is ours – possibly ours alone – that are awake. We were, in a sense, chosen. Not deliberately. But in the dance of chance and time, we found ourselves in a form that can explore and understand.”

This is the epitome of hubris – to assume that humans are the pinnacle of universal creation – “chosen”? “We” are the universe waking up? Wow. In fact, we have no idea….

His manifesto continues: exploration “is not invented but discovered, like a law of nature. It arises organically from the evolution of the cosmos – from the Universal Story itself – in a series of phase transitions from mere existence to awakening.” This is one opinion. Historians have explained that/how exploration -whether on Earth or in space – is a cultural invention. I do not agree that exploration “arises organically from the evolution of the cosmos” – what evidence is available to back up this claim?

His manifesto asserts: “If we fail to embrace the Mission, we risk the very future of our civilization.” Again, whose civilization are we talking about? (Or caring about?)  “If we succeed in embracing the Mission, our civilization can fully realize its potential.” Again, whose civilization are we talking about here? And what is with the capital M?

This manifesto is not deranged, as many other recent manifestos are. But it is very Eurocentric/male-centric. Who are the experts quoted or cited therein? Archimedes, Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Gottfriend Leibniz, Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, James Clark Maxwell, James Watt (the steam-engine developer, not President Reagan’s interior secretary), Heinrich Hertz, Marie Curie (an exception!), Albert Einstein, Yuri Gagarin, Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, David Deutsch (physicist), Elon Musk, Fei-Fei Li (female American computer scientist). (Seventeen males, two females. Hello?)

Milner’s “plan of action”? “Invest resources into fundamental science and space exploration.” Nations that can afford it are doing so.  “Enable artificial intelligence to drive scientific progress,” he wrote. I believe this is under way. And, by the way, “progress” is a fraught concept. In Western society, for hundreds of years, “progress” has been embraced as a good thing – with insufficient attention to the downsides of scientific and technological “progress.”  More words from Milner: “Celebrate scientists as heroes.” Maybe. Or maybe they’re just doing their jobs. More from Milner: “Focus education on the universal story and use the power of art to tell it.” What is “the universal story”? Does such a thing exist? “Spark a new enlightenment in which everyone can contribute to a shared culture of knowledge.” Who is “everyone”? And how will “everyone” have an opportunity – or even the desire – to “contribute to a shared culture of knowledge”?

Scientific American published an opinion piece by Milner on September 14, in which he promoted his belief in the importance of the quest for contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

As I often wonder, who is this important to? And, more importantly, how likely is contact?

Artemis: what is it good for?

NASA planned to launch the first uncrewed mission of its Space Launch System/Orion spacecraft – a.k.a. Artemis – to lunar orbit yesterday. It was cancelled due to technical problems. The media have turned out in droves to cover this event. So have spectators.

But what is Artemis for? There is no evidence of noticeable public support for returning people to the Moon. let alone sending them on to Mars, which NASA says is the ultimate aim of the Artemis program. Lunar scientists have been speaking to journalists about the science they might be able to conduct with a human presence on the Moon. That’s great for lunar scientists, but what’s the benefit to taxpayers who are funding this humongous program? And is a human presence necessary?

The Moon is close to Earth, so spacefaring nations have been poking around there for a long time. In 1958, NASA launched three Pioneer orbiter missions to the Moon – all unsuccessful. (I am using NASA’s language here – “unsuccessful,” versus “failed.”) A Pioneer flyby mission to the Moon, also launched in 1958, was, too, unsuccessful. A 1959 Pioneer flyby mission to the Moon was partially successful. In 1959, NASA launched two more Pioneer orbiter missions to the Moon – both unsuccessful. Also in 1959, the Soviet Union launched its Luna 2 mission to the Moon, the first successful lunar impact mission.

In 1960, NASA launched two Pioneer orbiter missions to the Moon – both unsuccessful. In 1962, NASA launched three Ranger lunar impact missions – all unsuccessful. In 1964, NASA launched another Ranger impact mission to the Moon – also unsuccessful. In 1964, NASA launched its first successful Ranger lunar impact mission (Ranger 7), followed by two more successful Ranger impact missions (8 and 9) in 1965.

In the late 1960s, NASA launched a series of Seven Surveyor lander missions to the Moon, five of which were successful.

Then came the Apollo human missions to the Moon (1968-1972). According to NASA, no lunar missions were launched in the 1980s.

In 1994, the Clementine mission to the Moon was launched – a collaboration between NASA and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. In 1998, NASA launched its Lunar Prospector orbiter/impact mission.

By the 2000s, the European Space Agency, Japan, China, and India, in addition to NASA, had sent orbiter/impactor missions to the Moon (including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, 2009, and LCROSS (the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite), 2009. In the 2010s, China sent seven missions to the Moon, all successful. NASA launched three lunar missions (GRAIL, LADEE, and the ARTEMIS/THEMIS mission – Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun), India one, and Israel one.

So, what can human missions to the Moon reveal that robotic missions to the Moon have not and cannot? I think it’s all about staking a claim – to a piece of outer space real estate that the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty declares is not available for appropriation: “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means; [and] the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” NASA is now “racing” with China and Russia to land people (back) there first. Proponents of establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon will say that establishing as presence is not the same as appropriation. I say it’s chest-thumping.

NASA’s inspector general has determined that the next few Artemis launches will cost $4 billion each. That’s each, on top of the $93 billion development cost of the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, according to the inspector general.

Is anybody at NASA headquarters listening to the inspector general?

Artemis is about money. Check out this map of Artemis contractors and suppliers supplied by NASA: “Since its inception, every state in America has made a contribution to the success of NASA’s Artemis program,” says the agency. Artemis prime contractors are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. In fiscal year 2020, Boeing was NASA’s #2 largest contractor ($1.5 billion), Lockheed Martin was #3 ($1.4 billion), Northrop Grumman was #4 ($1.4 billion), Jacobs was #5 ($1 billion), and Aerojet Rocketdyne was #37 ($67 million).

I live in Florida, and I receive a free magazine called Florida Trend in the mail. It’s about Florida business. The cover story of the September issue of the magazine is “Moon Shot: Florida Companies and Universities Are Building Crucial Components as NASA’s Artemis Project Prepares for the Moon.” A headline inside the magazine says, “A new mission boosts the economy: at least 130 Florida companies and an array of university researchers across the state have a role in Artemis.” Another article in the magazine, about Lockheed Martin’s Titusville, Florida, Orion spacecraft factory, notes that “just about every state in the nation supplies parts, materials and subassemblies for” Orion.

So, Artemis has quite a constituency….

But, again, except for those people employed to work on the Artemis program, how are taxpayers benefiting from this project they are paying for?

Almost 20 years ago, a coalition or labor unions, environmental groups, businesses, and other organizations called the Apollo Alliance was formed (yes, it was named after NASA’s Apollo program), with the aim of mobilizing government support for efforts to establish U.S. energy independence.  Its efforts now focus on state and local governments. “Now America has an Apollo project for the 21st century,” says the Alliance. “Today the stakes are much, much higher.  We face an economy hemorrhaging its highest paying and most productive jobs, cities falling apart with over a trillion dollars in unmet public investment in crumbling schools, transportation, and infrastructure.  The middle class is increasingly insecure as career ladders are broken and not replaced in new service sector jobs.  And on a global scale we face never before seen environmental disruption, rising social inequity, and the emergence of fundamentalist anger that threatens our very security.  We need new leaders of vision, and a new unifying call to action.”

Right on. What the Alliance is trying to do has clear public benefit. Artemis? Not so much.

Who cares about space science and exploration?

A 2022 issue of the journal Space Policy features a paper on “the public acquisition of space science information in the 21st century,” coauthored by Jon D. Miller of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, and colleagues.

This work was funded by a cooperative agreement between the University of Michigan and NASA “to study the development and distribution of civic scientific literacy in the United States and the factors that contribute to adult scientific understanding.” It’s a good piece of work. I wonder if anybody at NASA is heeding the findings.

According to the authors, space science and exploration are “low-salience” subjects for peoples’ time and attention in a competitive information marketplace. What does salience mean? The dictionary defines “salient” as “prominent” or “conspicuous.” The authors note that “some analysts have defined salience as the frequency of media coverage of an issue or subject, but this conceptualization is not helpful in understanding the information-seeking behaviors of individuals and reflects the communication assumption that a central set of messages define individual interests.” As this paper points out, this assumption is flawed. And I certainly agree.

NASA is still enamored of the deficit model of communication – experts decide what non-experts need to know, experts deliver this information, and the job is done. But what do non-experts need or want to know, and what do they do with the information that experts convey?

Drawing on a body of literature in the social and information sciences on information acquisition behaviors, Miller and colleagues propose “an emerging model of information acquisition, which we will refer to as a just-in-time (JIT) information acquisition system.” Stating that “space science and space exploration are low salience subjects for most American adults” Research has shown that “Space science and space exploration compete for a share of public attention with a wide array of other areas…about one in five American adults report a high level of interest in space exploration and…fewer than one in ten think they are well informed about this subject.” So, how do people decide what information about space science to acquire, or even desire?

First, the authors describe a model of “normal information about space science and exploration.”

“The ways that humans acquire information is undergoing a fundamental change comparable with the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press and broadcast systems. Using the literature and a growing body of empirical evidence, including national surveys in 2017, 2019, and 2020, we describe a model of normal space science information acquisition that specifies the roles of education, salience, subject-matter literacy, and navigation skills in the decision to seek information. We contrast this normal model with two models of event-driven or special space science information acquisition, using (1) the 2017 total solar eclipse (TSE) and (2) the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing in 1969 as examples. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of a just-in-time space science information acquisition system for the space science community, including scientists, leaders, and educators. “

“The emerging JIT information acquisition system changes the options and opportunities for space scientists and space policy leaders to think about fostering interest in space exploration and in enhancing the public understanding of space science and cosmology,” they say. “In a new system that is driven by individual decisions about what information they want and which sources they trust, scientists and scientific organizations such as NASA will need to rethink their strategies for sharing information and persuading citizens that this work is important and worthy of support.” I agree.

Here’s how the team proceeded with its study. “We use two U.S. one-year panel studies (2019 and 2020) to describe normal adult space information acquisition behaviors. The 2019 and 2020 Scientific Literacy Studies (henceforth, SLS) were conducted by AmeriSpeak, a panel service operated by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago…. Using a national probability sample of U.S. households taken from U.S. Postal Service listings of all occupied households, AmeriSpeak conducted a baseline survey in February and March of each year to obtain measures of subject-matter literacy and broad information acquisition activities. The same respondents were surveyed a second time in November and December and asked about selected events that occurred during the intervening year and about their science and space information acquisition activities during the preceding year. Both surveys used a combination of online questionnaires and telephone interviews, with each respondent selecting the mode in which they were most comfortable. A total of 2738 interviews were collected in 2019 and 3141 interviews were collected in 2020.”

“Using our combined 2019-2020 national SLS surveys, we focus on adults who reported seeking some information during the preceding year about space science or exploration. We find that 8% of adults in our 2019-20 sample attempted to acquire some information about space during previous 12 months and that they made an average of 5.8 attempts each year to find space information.” Though I have not conducted the thorough sort of research this team has done, my observation over decades working the space community and monitoring public engagement, I’d say that roughly 10 percent of Americans are engaged with space science and exploration – and, I believe, heavily skewed male, and white.

So where is the public interest and support? According to The Planetary Society, a so-called grassroots space advocacy group (I’m a paying member), its membership reached “an all-time high of 125,000” in 1989. According to Wikipedia, TPS now has about 60,000 members. TPS also has numerous “strategic partners,” mostly corporations. As to another so-called grassroots space advocacy group, the National Space Society: according to the National Space Society of Australia, the National Space Society has “more than 25,000 members worldwide.” NSS has corporate members/sponsors (I’d guess NSS financial support is about 50/50 individual-corporate). According to Wikipedia, all NSS Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Awards, starting in 1986, have been given to men.  All but one NSS Von Braun Award, since 1993, has been given to a man. Though I’ve not checked, I suspect they are mostly if not all white.

And here’s another so-called grassroots space advocacy group: the Mars Society, which, according to Wikipedia, has 5,000 members. There is no information on the society’s web site about financial support beyond individual memberships, but I suspect there are corporate supporters – especially for the society’s annual conferences. A Google search did not turn up information about membership in the Space Frontier Foundation, another so-called grassroots space advocacy group.

As far as I know, members of other space-advocacy groups are corporations or corporate employees – the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Commercial Space Flight Federation, and so on.

The world’s population is approaching 8 billion. Let’s be generous and double what I see as the known individual memberships in U.S.-based space advocacy groups – circa 100,000 – which do claim to have global reach. So, that’s 200,000. What share of the global population does the space advocacy community represent? Let’s be even more generous and say this community is a million people worldwide. It’s still a miniscule fraction of the global population.

Remembering James Lovelock and Nichelle Nichols

I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing famous people throughout my career in the space community, 1983-present.

Right now, who’s on my mind are two of those (many) people, who’ve recently left Earth – James Lovelock, independent scientist, inventor, and author, who in the early 1960s helped NASA develop life-detection-technologies for lunar and planetary missions, and Nichelle Nichols, of “Star Trek” fame but so much more.

Lovelock died on his 103d birthday, in Abbotsbury, Dorset, England, on July 26. Nichols died July 30, at age 89, in Silver City, New Mexico. They were both beautiful and fierce – so full of energy.

In 2010, I organized (with much help) a symposium to celebrate the history of the first 50 years of exobiology/astrobiology research at NASA. We wanted Lynn Margulis – the NASA exobiology program’s first female principal investigator – and James Lovelock – who’d been recruited to work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on extraterrestrial life detection technology (for the Viking missions to Mars) – to be keynote speakers. Lynn agreed immediately, and I needed her help to line up Lovelock. They were long-time collaborators. Lovelock didn’t do email or texting (or, perhaps, not even voicemail). With Lynn’s help, we did line him up to speak (he got a standing ovation). They both gave fascinating talks (still available on YouTube, I think).

Age 91 at the time of the symposium, Lovelock was as sharp as ever, and a lovely, gracious person. Lynn was – well, she was Lynn, an intellectual whirlwind…. I loved working with her. I made sure that whenever we needed to have a phone call, I needed to free up at least 45 minutes of time. It was always fascinating. She died the following year, November 22 – while much of the NASA astrobiology team (including myself) was at NASA Kennedy Space Center for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission (November 26, 2011).

It was wonderful to see Lovelock and Margulis together at the 2010 history meeting. They clearly loved and respected each other.

Lovelock gave me a preprint of a paper he’d published, I think in the 1960s, about life detection technology. I know I still have it but can’t locate it at the moment. I would never give it away….

In 2012, the astrobiology community held its biennial Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta. At this event, we conducted the final round of our Famelab Astrobiology science communication competition (ended just a few years later) for that year. Nichols graciously agreed to host this competition, and she did a lovely job (you can view the video recording here: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/in-memoriam-nichelle-nichols/). While with us, she tolerated numerous requests for “selfies” with her and questions about her career. She, too, received a standing ovation.

We had a daylong high-school mentorship program going on at the conference, and my mentee was Kayla Ruby Arroyo, then in high school in Atlanta. I have a photo of me, Kayla, and Nichols – beautiful! (Not me, but those two…). I’ve not been in touch with Kayla since then, except on Facebook, but I can see on LinkedIn that she’s now a Ph.D. student working on translational biomedical science at Georgia State University. (Wow. Go, Kayla!) 

I grew up in a blue-collar village in upstate New York. My first job was in a shoe factory, 1967-1969. I benefited from a public education all the way through a Ph.D. (Binghamton, NY; Fairfax, VA; Bloomington, IN). Moving to Washington, D.C., in 1977, was a life-changer for me. After a string of crummy jobs up north, I was offered so many job opportunities in D.C., and met so many wonderful, supportive, brilliant people along the way. At age 71, semi-retired in Florida, I want to give thanks for my life blessings every day. And I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn (I am an admitted science geek, after all).

Standards of evidence for the discovery of ET life: a sticky wicket, Part 2

On July 27,  I blogged about a recently published review by The National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) of a report on the astrobiology community’s 2021 standards of evidence workshop 9a.k.a. the Community Workshop Report). This report summarized discussions about how to establish reliable standards of evidence for announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

As CAPS has reported, “The Community Workshop Report details further potential actionable steps to implement an ideal biosignature verification and reporting protocol. Among these proposals are ‘forming an independent international committee to help coordinate information exchange and verification efforts’ and a partnership between astrobiologists and scientific journals ‘to provide specialized subject matter experts for peer review’…to promote increased transparency and produce robust science. The committee is highly skeptical these proposed actions will yield the desired results.”

CAPS appears to be of the view that the scientific method and the current system of scientific peer review (while not perfect, of course), should work well, as is, in assessing any claims of the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life. “First,” CAPS notes, “volunteering to abide by such a process is disadvantageous for both early acceptors and for those who decline to participate. Those who volunteer to abide by these protocols will have their work delayed, potentially impacting community standing or career prospects such as in cases of tenure and promotion review. Those that do not volunteer could see their work viewed as less worthy of consideration or scientific attention. Furthermore, the proposal that funding, as discussed in the previous section, be contingent on the utilization of this framework calls into question whether this acceptance is truly voluntary….” Good points.

“The notion of creating an international committee to coordinate verification activities or assess the totality of evidence for life on specific targets is worrying,” CAPS observes, “in that it has the capacity to concentrate power in the hands of a few intellectual gatekeepers. The same concerns are held for the proposal for a slate of ‘specialized subject-matter experts for peer review’…. Too much early information control is not an outcome that should be sought for similar reasons as above in that it creates a situation where there exists a group with the capacity to decide what information to control and what should be released.”

“It is important to recognize—and communicate to the public—that an initial publication is often the start of a scientific process rather than the end,” CAPS points out.

As CAPS notes, “the Community Workshop Report posited that significant obstacles exist within current reporting protocols and the modern research climate, including the nature of discovery embargoes and other similar agreements, and the fear of someone publishing a result unrightfully and gaining scientific priority. As such, the workshop attendees argued that community-led change and a change in incentives are needed to ensure that the verification process is scientifically robust and could also put a restraint on those seeking to use controversial results to bolster reputations.” Again, outliers – those self-proclaimed experts (some of them self-proclaimed experts on all science…) – and other publicity-seekers – will always be ready to talk to the media (and others, for what that’s worth) about controversial claims.

In “concluding remarks,” CAPS states in its review, “The committee does consider the assessment framework an excellent first step and a foundation on which future community discussions can build… However, by the committee’s interpretation, the Community Workshop Report seems to imply that the current scientific method with regards to biosignature detection and validation is inadequate to some extent and, therefore, requires oversight. The committee disagrees with this implication and the consequent recommendations from the Community Workshop Report.”

The fate of NEO Surveyor: still up in the air

The federal CHIPS and Science Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors), signed into law by President Biden today, includes NASA’s 2022 authorization. “It is the sense of Congress,” the act states in Title VII, that the Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission, as designed, is anticipated to make significant progress toward carrying out congressional policy and direction, as set forth in section 321(d)(1) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005 (Public Law 109–155; 119 Stat. 2922; 51 U.S.C. 71101 note prec.), to detect 90 percent of near-Earth objects equal to, or greater than, 140 meters in diameter; and the Administrator should prioritize the public safety role of the Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission and should not delay the development and launch of the mission due to cost growth on other planetary science missions…. The Administrator shall continue the development of a dedicated space-based infrared survey telescope mission, known as the ‘‘Near-Earth Object Surveyor’’, on a schedule to achieve a launch-readiness date not later than March 30, 2026, or the earliest practicable date.”

The administration’s fiscal year 2023 budget request for NASA included only $88 million for the agency’s planetary defense program, which is funding the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission. This amount is about half of what the planetary defense program needs to launch NEO Surveyor in 2026, as planned. The requested $88 million budget for fiscal 2023, NASA says – a 56.6 percent reduction from fiscal 2022 – would delay NEO Surveyor for at least two years “to support other high-priority missions within Planetary Science.” NASA says this budget request delays the launch of NEO Surveyor to no earlier than 2028, “due to budget pressure caused by various missions that are costing more than expected, due to COVID and other causes.” Those missions that are costing more than expected are Europa Clipper and Mars sample return.

Both Congress and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have identified NEO Surveyor as a high-priority mission. Yet someone at NASA – I do not know who – apparently has decided that NEO Surveyor is not a high-priority mission.

House and Senate appropriations bills for fiscal 2023 are under consideration. As Jeff Foust with Space News reported July 29, “The Senate bill would double the requested funding for NEO Surveyor ‘and welcomes NASA’s commitment to a 2026 launch.’ However, those familiar with the project say that the partial restoration in funding for NEO Survey proposed in the bill would not be sufficient to keep the mission on track for a 2026 launch.”

As I wrote in March, this proposal to delay NEO Surveyor –and, so far, it’s a proposal, not enacted – came as a shock to the planetary defense community –  including NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. It’s not clear who made this decision. In April I wrote of the National Academies’ Decadal Survey of Astrobiology and Planetary Science endorsement of NEO Surveyor: “NASA should fully support the development, timely launch, and subsequent operation of the NEO Surveyor, a dedicated, space-based mid-infrared survey, to achieve the highest priority planetary defense NEO survey goals.”

NASA claims it closely follows the recommendations of the National Academies’ decadal surveys of space science – and supposedly directions from Congress. Congress gives weight to the decadal surveys. So what the heck is going on with funding for NEO Surveyor? Any delay of a mission inevitably increases its cost. Robbing the NEO Surveyor budget to pay for cost growth in other planetary missions will not only delay NASA’s ability to meet a congressional mandate but also increase the mission’s cost. I have to wonder, again, who made this decision?

Meanwhile, Defense News reported August 2 that the Senate Appropriations Committee is proposing to increase the U.S. Space Force’s budget – already almost as large as NASA’s total budget – by $2.2 billion “o support missile warning satellite development, responsive launch capabilities and improved testing and training infrastructure. The proposed increase comes as part of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s $792 billion spending package for fiscal 2023, released July 28. The bill calls for a 9% increase to the Department of Defense’s budget over fiscal 2022 spending levels and is $31 billion higher than what House lawmakers approved in June.”

Compare this number to the cost of around $500 million or so over the next few years to get NEO Surveyor off the ground – a mission Congress has recognized as filling a “public safety role.”

Standards of evidence for the discovery of ET life: a sticky wicket

The National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) has completed a review of a report on the astrobiology community’s 2021 standards of evidence workshop. The workshop report summarized discussions about how to establish reliable standards of evidence for announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life. What follows are some highlights of the CAPS review.

The community workshop addressed these questions – Have you detected an authentic signal? Have you adequately identified the signal? Are there abiotic sources for your detection? Is it likely that life would produce this expression in this environment? Are there independent lines of evidence to support a biological (or non-biological) explanation? – and considered a proposed confidence of life detection (CoLD) scale to evaluate claims.

The CAPS review stated: “The concept of a confidence level scale is not new within the broader scientific community. Several of these are specifically intended to foster communications between various groups both within and outside the science community. For instance, the Torino scale first proposed in 1997 for categorizing Earth impact event threats and adopted in 1999 by the International Astronomical Union was intended by its originating paper to place ‘the hazard posed by any given close approach into an easily understandable context that allows simple and efficient communication between astronomers and the public.’ The Torino scale facilitates this communication and is widely accepted and used today, an example of a scale being used to convey critical scientific information of deep public interest that could be sensationalized in the worst of cases.”

I was surprised to see this reference to the Torino scale. In recent years, members of the planetary defense community have been weaning themselves off this scale, especially in communications with non-experts, acknowledging that this probabilistic approach to calculating and characterizing asteroid impact risks is, well, problematic – especially in communicating with non-experts. Consequently, references to the Torino scale in media reports about asteroid impact risks have been dwindling.

Even NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory no longer uses the Torino scale. (However, CNEOS does use the Palermo scale in its probabilistic calculations of impact risk – CNEOS notes that the Palermo scale “was developed to enable NEO specialists [emphasis added] to categorize and prioritize potential impact risks spanning a wide range of impact dates, energies and probabilities.”

In 2014, at the request of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) steering group, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Office and the Secure World Foundation organized a workshop on communicating about asteroid impact warnings and mitigation plans, on behalf of IAWN. I was tasked with co-organizing this workshop.  A report on it (which I co-authored) can be found here.

One finding of the workshop participants was that “quantitative and probabilistic scales are of limited value when communicating with non-expert audiences. Qualitative measures of characterizing impact hazards and risks and describing potential impact effects may be more effective communication tools.”

Participants recommended that “IAWN should develop and employ a new, non-probabilistic scale for characterizing asteroid impact hazards and impact effects.” (We’re still working on it…but as I’ve noted, the Torino scale is on the way out, if not already there.)

Back to the CAPS review – it continues, “Another example of such a scale meant to facilitate communication of groundbreaking and history-making significance is the Rio scale, first proposed in 2000 and adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 2002. Similar to, and named in part in reference to, the Torino scale, the Rio scale is perhaps more relevant to astrobiological studies in that its 10 levels describe the confidence of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. This too is meant to ensure the clarity of a public announcement of a discovery by providing a common language that frames a potential discovery with far-reaching consequences.”

A while ago, Rio scale proponent Duncan Forgan shared with me the manuscript of a 2019 paper on which he is the lead author, “Rio 2.0 – revising the Rio scale for SETI detections,” welcoming comments. According to this paper, “The scale is constructed by multiplying two numbers: ​Q​, which describes the consequences of a signal if it is an ETI discovery, and ​δ​, a description of the credibility of the signal being truly ETI. The resulting scale R = Qδ (1) ranges between 0 and 10, with 10 being of the greatest possible excitement.”

Here are my comments to Duncan:

“Thanks again for sharing with me your Rio 2.0 paper. Keep in mind as you process my observations that I am a social scientist, a relativist, and a constructivist (i.e., people construct social reality). So, my perspective/world view is quite different from that of most natural scientists.

You state: ‘The Rio scale is a tool for communicating the significance of a signal to the general public.’  The concern I have here is that “significance” is highly subjective, and “significance” is being determined by SETI advocates for others who may or may not be interested and engaged.

[In addition, there is no such thing as a “general public.”]

You discuss ‘consequences of a signal’ – again, a subjective assessment by advocates. Determining ‘significance’ and ‘consequences’ is a highly speculative exercise.

I see that you do note in your paper that, “Despite our best efforts to build an objective Rio Scale, it is clear that there will always remain a subjective element to any attempt to determine a SETI signal’s ‘significance.’”

Comparing the Rio scale with scales used to characterize asteroid impact risks is like comparing apples and potatoes. Asteroid impact risk scales – which, like the Rio scale, have been developed by experts primarily for expert use but have leaked into the public discourse, where they are interpreted in different ways – are attempts to quantify risk, whereas the Rio scale is not dealing with risk, but significance. And of course, as you note in your paper, with the Rio scale you are dealing with considerable uncertainty, interpretation, and evaluation.

(I’ve blogged about the challenges of communicating about probabilities and uncertainties here and here.)

You state in your paper: ‘A ‘detection’ has a clear astronomical meaning (in that a signal was received that exceeded some predefined noise threshold), but its meaning to the layperson has unwanted connotations of discovery and confirmation. We advise the SETI community to adopt a single set of terminology for discussing signals.’ This is not a bad idea, but, again, in the public discourse any precision you are attempting to convey via terminology will likely be lost.

You note: ‘Most importantly, the Rio Scale should teach the public how SETI scientists evaluate signals. A well-designed website has the potential to be a powerful pedagogical tool, to inoculate against overblown press. It provides transparency to scientific thought processes, and indicates to the public how much work remains to be done to characterise the signal.” The emphasis on educating, rather than informing, is misguided. The emphasis on educating rests on an assumption that people are ignorant. An emphasis on informing rests on the assumption that people are capable of, and have the right to be, making their own decisions, once they have the information that they need (i.e. ‘informed decision making’). [And again, I’ll note that there is no such thing as “the public.”]

Anthropologist John Traphagan – a colleague and friend of mine – published a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology (IJA) in 2019, “Deconstructing the Rio scale: problems of subjectivity and generalization” – a critique of some of the thinking in the above-mentioned Rio scale paper. In the same issue of IJA, Duncan Forgan and colleagues published a rebuttal to Traphagan’s arguments.

At the 2022 meeting of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SSoCIA), I gave a talk on this topic: “The discovery of extraterrestrial life: how important?” Whether we’re talking about the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life in the solar system or the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, I asked, to whom will it be important, and in what way?

Scientists involved in the search tend to describe such discoveries as profound, Earth-shaking, world-changing. (Indeed, CAPS states in its review of the workshop report, “Perhaps no scientific discovery would have a greater impact on humanity’s relationship to the cosmos than the discovery of extraterrestrial life.”)

Here are just a few examples:

“The discovery of life elsewhere would surely rank as [one] of the greatest discoveries of all time and would disrupt our sense of who we are and our place in the universe.” (Philosophers and SSoCIA co-founders Kelly Smith and Carlos Mariscal, 2020)

Confirmation of the absence or presence of life beyond Earth “will be one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science.” (Historian Steven J. Dick, 2020) “The discovery of even microbial life beyond Earth would be perhaps the greatest discovery in the history of science.” (S.J. Dick, 2015)

“That discovery will rival the immensity of those that launched our previous scientific revolutions and, in the process, defined our humanity.” (Journalist Marc Kaufman, 2011)

“The discovery would certainly be one of the biggest news stories of the year and interest would be intense. But it would not change the world immediately.” That said, “Over the long term, the psychological and philosophical implications of the discovery could be profound.” (World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, 2013)

But, on the other hand, who else cares? As my colleague and friend, philosopher James S.J. Schwartz, has written (2020): “A common refrain among astrobiology advocates is that astrobiology seeks to answer questions of great importance to all of humanity, such as ‘Are we alone in the universe? If we are not alone, what other kinds of life are out there?’ However, such claims are seldom based on anything resembling sociological research and instead tend to be purely anecdotal …. We cannot support any robust conclusions about the level of public support for astrobiology, which means that we are not in a position to confirm (or deny) the universal appeal of astrobiology.”

Back to the CAPS review. Confidence scales in science, it states, “share key aspects that are advantageous for facilitating communications on potentially historic discoveries. Each provides a common language that can be used both within the scientific community and to the general public, contextualizing scientifically complex and nuanced discoveries. [LB note: Again, there is no such thing as “the general public.”] Second, all of these are meant to be a dynamic analysis where discoveries are moved up and down the scale as research progresses and verification studies unfold. Third, they are broadly general within their respective fields and communicate only varying degrees of confidence in a particular discovery (or in the case of the Torino scale, danger) rather than methodology.”

The Torino scale provides a probabilistic assessment of risk, not danger, of impact. Danger – that is, possible effects of an actual impact – is assessed by different means. The planetary defense community and the emergency management community have been working together for some time to come up with more useful ways of characterizing impact effects. What the planetary defense community does is find (near-Earth asteroids), warn (of possible impacts), coordinate (with government agencies and the emergency management community), and mitigate (possible impacts – by deflection of an asteroid off its impact course, for example). What the emergency management community does is prepare for possible damage to people, property, and infrastructure by an impact.

The CAPS review continues: “As stated before, progressive level scales are useful in facilitating communication between the scientific community and the press, especially for communicating complex and nuanced high-impact discoveries of interest to the general public. The Torino scale, in particular, serves a valuable role in contextualizing the risk of what could potentially be a catastrophically damaging impact event. Public interest in the potential for and the prevention of a space-borne disaster such as an asteroid impact is enormous, and yet, the press regularly uses the Torino scale to demonstrate that potential impactors seen initially to be risky are later deemed to be safe.”

As I noted above, the Torino scale is on the way out. Interestingly, the CAPS review cites only one example of “the press regularly us[ing]” the Torino scale in reporting on asteroid impact risks – a story in the U.S. Sun. Here’s what  Media Bias/Fact Check has to say about the U.S. Sun – an online arm of the British tabloid The Sun:  “Overall, we rate The US Sun Right Biased based on story selection and editorial bias that favors the right. We also rate them Mixed for factual reporting due to overly sensationalized headlines, failed fact checks, and the promotion of misinformation.”

As to the astrobiology community’s proposed CoLD scale, the CAPS review states, “It could have a detrimental effect when communicating with the general public, eager to hear about scientific progress. This problem is especially compounded by the level of public interest that a life detection claim could generate. Spending months if not years at the same level could create public fatigue about astrobiology claims that are still at the same early level, even when scientific progress has been made, perhaps detrimentally affecting public view of non-detection results. A more refined scale that accounts for more incremental scientific progress would be more effective for communicating with the public.”

The CAPS review continues, “The Community Workshop Report recommends a methodology to improve or control communication clarity by asking scientists to go through additional steps of internal community vetting before discoveries are published or announced. This makes an assumption that [NASA’s] ‘no embargo’ policy is not problematic in the goal of clear communication related to life detection findings. Additionally, this makes an assumption that scientists and their press officers are properly prepared to engage with the media to report findings once vetted. The committee considers these two assumptions unsupported and/or unjustified.”

“The first assumption,” it continues, “that the NASA ‘no embargo’ policy does not have an impact on clear communications, is unsupported. Potential modifications to that policy, at least in the specific regard of a life detection discovery, could result in a resolution that is less disruptive to the process of announcing or publishing a discovery while maintaining the openness of NASA’s communications and allowing a more proactive engagement by the science press.”

“The second assumption, that the scientific community and its affiliated press officers are properly prepared to engage with science journalists once results are verified, is similarly unsupported and, in this case, unjustified. With rare exceptions, researchers are not regularly trained in science communication, as the Community Workshop Report rightfully observes. Press officers are often not trained in science at a practitioner level and, from the committee’s understanding and information gathering, rely heavily on their discussions with scientists to ensure that scientific details are correct.”

I tend to agree with CAPS – these assumptions are not supported by evidence. One factor that neither the standards of evidence workshop report nor the CAPS review addressed is the role of politics in announcing what scientists may deem a significant discovery.

The ALH 84001 paper – claiming discovery of fossil evidence of microbial life in a Martian meteorite fragment – published in Science in 1996 was embargoed (by Science) – but Leonard David of Space News broke the embargo, requiring NASA and Science to revamp their plans for announcing the findings in the paper. The White House got involved. Same goes for the (infamous) arsenic-life paper published in Science in 2010. Authors of the recent phosphine-at-Venus paper in Nature Communications used social media to stir up interest in it before they published their claims.

Neither NASA nor the science community has control over the current media landscape, a situation that’s not likely to change in the foreseeable future. I recall attending a SETI session at the 1987 International Astronautical Congress in Brighton, England – I was then a journalist – in which there was a discussion of how the SETI community could “control” media and public discourse about the discovery of a radio signal (now we would call it a technosignature) of extraterrestrial intelligent origin. I was asked for my thoughts, and I said, you won’t be able to control it. Period. Thirty five years later, the media landscape is so much bigger, more complex and more diverse, and control is definitely not an option in this environment (where anybody who can create a website can declare themselves a journalist).

The CAPS review focuses on improving communications between scientists and journalists and also suggests collaboration between the two communities.

First, if the astrobiology community is able to improve communications between scientists and journalists (which I think is pretty good, with most reliable journalists), this does not guarantee that communications between journalists and their audiences will improve (and who would decide what constitutes improvement?). Audience research – how content is received, interpreted, and used by various audiences – is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And in and around the astrobiology community, there are and always will be outliers – self-proclaimed subject matter experts who like to be in the public eye and will communicate readily with journalists, who are always looking for a grabby lead.

Second, “collaboration” between scientists and journalists is not likely. That’s a touchy word…. As (reliable) journalists Joel Achenbach and Marina Koren recently told CAPS, journalists work in a different environment than scientists do. (I’ve studied the sociology of journalism and the sociology of science and could write many blog posts about the differences.) As to the CoLD scale, when asked what they thought about it, they said they were not sure who it was for….

Establishing trust is important. Journalists have repeatedly told NASA scientists that NASA’s Office of Communications policy of requiring all media queries to go to public affairs officers – and the ones I work with are continually overburdened – and not directly to subject matter experts is a barrier to good communications. This policy goes all the way back to NASA’s first head of public affairs, Walter Bonney, who claimed NASA should be open and transparent in its external communications but at the same time required all media queries to go through the PAO first. Karen Fox, NASA’s lead public affairs officer for space science, told CAPS earlier this year that this policy is justified in the name of accessibility – that is, making information available to all journalists at the same time. (She also said the aim of NASA’s communication efforts is “to incite excitement about NASA science and technology” and “encourage support of our mission.”)

As a social scientist, I find it disappointing that neither the standards-of-evidence workshop group nor CAPS consulted with communication researchers or other social scientists on the challenges of communicating about the detection of evidence of extraterrestrial life. We social scientists keep offering (and, after all, I am funded by two NASA science programs, astrobiology and planetary defense, so I can’t complain), but, mostly, natural scientists seem to prefer to talk amongst themselves.

To finish up, I’ll recommend a paper by historian Jonathan Coopersmith of Texas A&M University, “Great (unfulfilled) expectations: to boldly go where no social scientist has gone before.” It’s published in a NASA history volume, Remembering the Space Age: Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary Conference (2008 – the conference was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I). The book is available online. Coopersmith wrote about a NASA-funded social science research project of the mid-1960s “to understand why such lofty goals” for NASA’s space exploration existed, what came of this project, and “where the humanities and social sciences stand in relation to the space program some four decades later.” It’s a good read.

Webb Space Telescope: what for?

The news media are raving about the first images NASA has released that were produced by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

Rightly so? Perhaps.

For astronomers and astrophysicists, Webb is a huge deal, a potential data bonanza. NASA’s public affairs machine has been ramping up for this image-release moment for months. And the media are eating up what’s been offered. (Nothing new there….) There will be more Webb “events,” rest assured.

My question is, what does data gathered by this telescope do, or mean, or provide, for the taxpayers who paid for it (and will continue to pay, for years)? And what about the rest of “humanity”? What does Webb offer to them? I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I wonder….

NASA administrator Bill Nelson published an opinion piece on cnn.com July 12, full of favorite NASA buzzwords used for decades: “innovators…pioneers…inspiring the world….” He wrote, “Our discoveries in space will spur diplomacy on Earth.” I’d ask, with China and Russia? Or North Korea? Earth includes them.

Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times yesterday, “we are gawking in awe at the universe.”

But, who is “we”?

Stirone wrote, “Humans are explorers by nature.” I’m not sure there’s evidence to back this up. The known history of people on Earth shows that some societies have not been, nor are now, exploratory. Curious, yes. But outward bound? Space-bound? It seems that human exploration on Earth has largely been driven by a drive for conquest and exploitation – a drive that has propelled the human exploration of space since its beginnings.

Loren Grush wrote for The Verge yesterday, urging readers to “marvel” at the images. She described them as “tantalizing,” “dazzling,” “spellbinding,” “glorious.”

But what do these images mean to, or do for, non-scientists, aside from making beautiful poster art?

Don’t get me wrong. I like knowing where I live, where I come from. I love seeing what the universe looks like. Knowing more about our solar system, our galaxy, our universe is very satisfying to me. But what about everybody else? I’ve been working in the space community since 1983 and have had a privileged view of what’s going on in space. What about everybody else?

And finally, should this $10 billion telescope be named after a federal official who promoted homophobia in government? Watch this 41-minute documentary, produced by the Just Space Alliance (of which I am a member). Many astronomers have protested the naming of this spacecraft after Webb. Dennis Overbye raised questions in in the New York Times yesterday, “Who was James Webb, anyway?”

What is the value of space (assets, exploration, other)? Inmarsat weighs in

Inmarsat, the International Maritime Satellite Organization, released a report on June 30 entitled “What on Earth is the value of space?” What’s lacking in this public report, on a study launched in April 2022, is a lot of important detail. As a social scientist, I say this study – as publicly reported – flunks the test of reliable research.

Contributors listed in the public report are four Western white males, one Asian male, and one Western white female plus Inmarsat CEO Rajeev Suri. Inmarsat claims this study is “the largest report of its kind ever produced,” polling 20,000 people in 11 countries. The 11 countries were the U.S., Brazil, Germany, South Korea, Canada, India, Australia, China, Japan, the U.K. and the UAE. No African country was included in this study. Brazil is the only South American country included in this study. Much of the world was excluded. How were these countries selected?

What Inmarsat did not offer in releasing the results of its study is the actual survey itself – that is, the questions asked, how they were asked (in person, by phone, by mail, online), and who exactly formulated the questions, and how, and why. Also not included in the public report on the study is information on how the respondents were chosen. In reliable social scientific research, it’s important to know how respondents are selected, how they are contacted, and how questions are worded to determine whether and how responses might or might not be skewed.

The Inmarsat report opens with this statement: “This research exposes many contradictions in attitudes to space. People have high hopes, but they’re founded more on sci-fi than the realities of space technology. The global population is yet to grasp the real promise of the second space age and its potential to enrich life on Earth.”

Wow. Talk about bias from the get-go.

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, in an introduction to the public report on the study, says, “I wonder how many people understand the real potential of advances like ubiquitous connectivity, space-based solar power or Mars exploration. Do they know such breakthroughs could help to tip the balance in our fight against poverty, ill-health or climate change?”

Here I will show my own bias. I don’t know how Mars exploration “could help to tip the balance in our fight against poverty, ill-health, or climate change.” As to ubiquitous connectivity, it’s made the lives of many simultaneously more efficient and more difficult – and more expensive. What about all the people on Earth who can’t afford or don’t even have access to “ubiquitous connectivity”?

Space-based communications clearly are a great benefit – if you can afford to hook up. Space-based solar power has been proposed for decades, and it hasn’t happened. There’s a whole lot more we can do on Earth to harness solar power. I live on the Gulf coast of Florida, where every rooftop should be covered with solar panels – and they’re not. The cost is prohibitive for most people, especially lower-income people. Government subsidies or grants are puny. When I bought my house in Florida (and I am not lower-income), I looked into going all-solar. Got estimates: $30,000+. No subsidies or tax breaks.

Mr. Suri credited space exploration with the development of solar panels and water filtration systems. I don’t think we needed space exploration programs to spur development of these technologies.

The way to tip the balance “in our fight against poverty” is to get serious about reducing socioeconomic inequality. The prestigious science journal Nature dedicated a recent issue to “the science of inequality” (Volume 606 Issue 7915, 23 June 2022). We know what to do. We’re just not doing it. Call me myopic, but I can’t see how space exploration can make any contribution to reducing socioeconomic inequality – this will require people, on the ground.

Okay, back to the Inmarsat study. The four hypotheses driving this study were:

  1. “Technological advances that were by-products of the first Space Age…are so embedded in everyday life that they’re taken for granted.”
  2. “The second Space Age has arrived, but the public are not wholly aware of its significance. Astonishing innovations in recent years are not welcomed with the sense of wonder, curiosity and hunger for knowledge that accompanied the first Space Age.”
  3. “Space is attracting huge amounts of investment. We need to ensure that investment goes into activities that will improve the lives of everyone on this planet.”
  4. “Some of our fears about Space [sic] have turned more into fears for space.”

Again, as a social scientist, I do not find these hypotheses to be very useful – especially #3. According to Wikipedia, “A hypothesis (plural hypotheses) is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it. Scientists generally base scientific hypotheses on previous observations that cannot satisfactorily be explained with the available scientific theories.”

As to #2, maybe the first sentence works as a hypothesis. But the second sentence? “Astonishing innovations in recent years are not welcomed with the sense of wonder, curiosity and hunger for knowledge that accompanied the first Space Age.” Wow. Lots of loaded words there – astonishing, wonder, curiosity, hunger – yikes. Dear readers, you can decide for yourselves whether these hypotheses are just that, or statements of belief.

According to the results of this survey, respondents in China know considerably more about space-based Internet capabilities, GPS and satellite navigation capabilities, and in-space manufacturing capabilities, than respondents in the U.S. and “globally” (and, again, the 11 countries surveyed are not necessarily representative of the world).

Back to the report:”despite variable levels of knowledge and understanding of space technology and the second Space Age, overall there is a great deal of hope for what space can deliver for Earth. Research showed that, globally, the top three ambitions for space are:

  1. RESEARCHING AND FINDING NEW ENERGY SOURCES
  2. MONITORING AND HELPING TO SOLVE CLIMATE CHANGE
  3. NEW SOURCES FOR ESSENTIAL RESOURCES

The next generation of space-faring nations (South Korea, China, the UAE) are strongly aligned with these ambitions – probably driven by the potential for this second Space Age to support economic growth.”

What list of “ambitions for space” was offered to respondents to rank? Or were respondents asked to list their own priorities, without prompting?

Options offered for answering the question, “Which, if any, of the following do you think that space can deliver for the Earth? “ were “monitoring and helping to solve climate change, researching and finding new alternative energy sources, new source for essential resources, alleviating poverty, researching and finding cures for diseases like cancer,” and “I don’t think space can deliver anything.” Instead of highlighting that most respondents ranked climate change and energy resources highest in priority, Inmarsat’s report noted that, “Globally, there is a small core of people who are aware of the potential for space to answer many of the world’s challenges. For example, 7% believe space can alleviate poverty; 7% think space can support the goal of producing enough food to feed our growing population; and 11% imagine space will have a role in researching and finding cures for diseases like cancer.”

As to questions about how different “markets feel about space” (markets vs. populations? feel vs. think?), questions differed from country to country – the three standard questions (they are actually statements) were “I wish I knew more about space, I feel excited about what could happen in space, I’m hopeful about the possibilities of space.” Country-specific questions added on to these three were: for China, “I feel insignificant when I think about space”; for India, “I feel a spiritual connection with space”; and for the UAE, “I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities of space.” I find these additional questions puzzling, and I don’t know who crafted them, and why.

As to another question, “What are the biggest threats from space activity?”, the options were: space junk and collisions in space, damaging the Earth’s atmosphere, impact on climate change, polluting space, introducing new diseases to Earth [this is a weird one],” and “I don’t think anything will be a threat.” Top choices were space junk and collisions in space.

I don’t know how much money Inmarsat invested in this study or why the organization did not hire a more reputable public opinion research organization to conduct it. I would urge my readers to consume the study results with several grains of salt.

PS: In 1994, I had the privilege of organizing a two-day symposium for NASA, “What is the value of space exploration?” A summary report on the proceedings is available online (I can’t obtain a link, but Google “NASA 1994 what is the value of space exploration?” and you’ll find the report.)

What’s going on in astrobiology? Experts speak

I spent much of the of May 14-20 week attending the 2022 Astrobiology Science Conference in Atlanta. I participated virtually. It was, as always, fascinating, and to a considerable extent, over my head. I’ll highlight some interesting remarks here, some with attribution, some not.

A new NASA-supported research coordination network – LIFE, “from early cells to multicellularity” – was launched at the meeting. Its members are focused on the coevolution of life and environment on Earth.

In a plenary talk at the meeting, LIFE co-lead Betul Kacar made “the case for molecular paleobiology.” What astrobiologists are interested in, she said, is not individual organisms but the effects of life on the planet. From top to bottom – biosphere, ecosystems, community down to molecules – different levels of complexity are at play and different rules apply at every level.

“We are largely unaware of how environmental and evolutionary innovations impacted our planet,” she continued. “The foundations of these jumps” – that is, innovations – “that define life on our planet are almost completely unknown.” It’s not clear whether gaps between major biological innovations are millions to billions of years long.

Exoplanet research was a major topic at the meeting. At a media roundtable discussion on searching for signs of life and technology – biosignatures and technosignatures – on exoplanets, a reporter asked, what exactly is an Earth-like planet? Exoplanet researcher Natalie Batalha said she tries to avoid using this term. She prefers to use, instead, terrestrial-sized.

As to biosignatures, one young scientist observed that we can’t predict what sorts of biological gases would be generated by life as we don’t know it. So, biosignatures under consideration as possible signs of extraterrestrial life are based on what we know about Earth life.

In a session on scientists, publics, planetary protection and post-life detection, four questions were raised about Mars exploration: If there is indigenous life on Mars, what is the future of humans there? If there is no indigenous life there, what is the future of humans there? And what will it take to prove that there is or is not life on Mars? These questions should be addressed not just by technocrats and billionaires (who are driving the public dialogue about the future of the human exploration of Mars).

In a plenary talk about Martian meteorites and plans for Mars sample return, planetary scientist Meenakshi Wadwha explained why analysis of returned samples of Mars will be superior to analysis of Martian meteorites found on Earth. The transit time for a piece of Mars to reach Earth is 10 million to 20 million years. Once a piece of Mars lands on Earth, it is subject to weathering. Once collected, it can’t be determined how long it was on the surface before it was found. Her research team placed a Martian meteorite they’d already analyzed in a desert environment and collected it a year later. They found that it had been “significantly altered.” If Mars sample return is conducted properly, the samples should be pristine. In addition, scientists will know where exactly on Mars the samples came from.

I do understand the scientific rationale for Mars sample return – but, as I’ve said here before, I suspect that, like many large-scale space missions, it will take longer and cost more, perhaps much more, than advocates are saying right now. Right now I’m tuned in to a workshop cosponsored by the Committee on Space Research, NASA, and the European Space Agency on planetary protection considerations for human missions to Mars – how to prevent humans from contaminating the Martian environment and how to prevent the Martian environment, should it contain biology, from contaminating the crew – a huge challenge at every level.

There was lots, lot more at AbSciCon, but this is all from me today.