Searching for extraterrestrial life: it’s complicated


Last month I spent four intensive days at the 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago. Among many messages I took home from this meeting is that searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life is complicated. As in difficult, challenging, frustrating, time-consuming….

Nonetheless, the growing community of scientists engaged in this endeavor are becoming more and more convinced that, ultimately, the search will be successful. As to how long it will take to find incontrovertible evidence that life exists somewhere other than Earth, few astrobiologists are willing to venture a guess – such a prediction would be, indeed, nothing more.

I’ve been going to AbSciCons for more than 10 years. The first AbSciCon I attended had no concurrent sessions. I could listen to every single talk on the agenda. This year, AbSciCon featured no less than five concurrent sessions each day plus multiple plenaries, two massive poster sessions (150 posters per), lunchtime meetings, and other special events.

The theme of this year’s conference, which drew 750 registrants, was “habitability, habitable worlds, and life.” A press conference held during the conference featured astrobiologists who are engaged in cutting-edge research into the habitability of extrasolar planets, icy planetary bodies, and planetary subsurfaces.

I can’t offer a summary of the conference, as at any given time I was missing four out of five concurrent sessions. What I can offer is a list of interesting questions and statements I heard there that provide a taste of what astrobiology is about today (I note sources where I remember them):

  • Big Questions:
    • How can we distinguish between biosignatures and abiosignatures?
    • What is “habitable”? What is a “habitable zone”? How do we define the habitable zone of a planetary system?
    • What was the relative abundance of carbon from exogenous and accreted materials on the early Earth?
    • “What does a planet do to let life get there? What exactly is the problem that life solves?” (Everett Shock, Arizona State University)
  • Origin and evolution of life:
    • When did life cross “the Darwinian threshold” from communal to individual evolution?
    • It seems more sensible to think about life beginning inside a planetary body, eventually working its way to the surface and adapting to the use of light. (Everett Shock, Arizona State University).
    • Research shows that atmospheric oxygen on Earth was low prior to the Great Oxidation Event 2.45 billion years ago. Research also shows that local and global “whiffs” of oxygen appeared in the atmosphere before that event, 3 billion years ago. If oxygen was being produced on Earth 3 billion years ago, then why did the Great Oxidation Event not occur until 2.45 billion years ago? (Jim Kasting, Penn State)
  • Carbon and life:
    • How does terrestrial carbon processing inform us about extraterrestrial habitable worlds?
    • Carbon is the backbone of life. But it might be impossible to explain how carbon in a planet participates in the prebiotic chemistry that eventually led to life on Earth. (Michael Callahan, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center).
    • Carbon itself doesn’t lead to life. It’s the interaction of carbon with its environment that leads to life. (Andrew Steele, Carnegie Institution for Science)
  • Exoplanet habitability:
    • At AbSciCon 2012, no global climate models for extrasolar planets were presented. At AbSciCon 2015, six models were presented. These models “are proving to be a very useful tool” in studying exoplanet habitability. (Rory Barnes, U. Washington).
    • A tidally locked planet, close to its star with one side always facing it, is not necessarily inhabitable. (Ibid.)
    • The early evolution of M dwarf stars may desiccate planets in their habitable zones. (Ibid.)
    • Astrobiology needs more geophysicists. We need to know what goes on inside planets as they evolve. (Ibid.)
    • The mass of a star can be just as important to planetary habitability as its luminosity is. (Ibid.)
    • “Planetary habitability is complicated.” (Ibid.)
    • Direct imaging of an exoplanet requires angular separation of star and planet and suppression of the star’s light. “We don’t have it yet for terrestrial planets.” (Vikki Meadows, U. Washington)
    • Transit transmission is a technique for looking through an exoplanet’s atmosphere (but not for observing its surface). The James Webb Space Telescope will provide the first opportunities for transit transmission observations of exoplanets. (Ibid.)
    • What global climate models are most useful to the study of exoplanet habitability?
    • Small, common stars with planets usually have multiple planets – so should the search for habitable exoplanets focus on these multiple-planet systems? (Aowama Shields, UCLA)
    • It is not logical to assume that Earthlike planets are most likely to be habitable. (Rene Heller, McMaster University)
  • Life detection:
    • Heat + pressure + time can create abiotic organic materials that are similiar in physical appearance, elemental composition, and molecular characteristics to biotic materials. So when we’re looking for fossil evidence of life – on Earth or elsewhere – we have to be really careful to distinguish between the two. (Abigail Allwood, Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
    • “The biggest lesson I’ve learned” is that “context is key” to identifying true biosignatures in the terrestrial rock record. If a potential biosignature were to be identified in a returned Mars sample, interpreting that evidence properly would require a lot of contextual evidence. (Ibid.)
    • “Habitability is the potential but not the proof for life.” (Murthy Gudipati, Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
    • We know that (on Earth) microbes can live in ice. We know little about how microbes affect ice structure. We know that ice is abundant in the solar system. (Britney Schmidt, Georgia Tech)
    • “We’re biased by what we know about life on Earth…. How much fun it is” to put aside those biases and think about other possibilities for life. (Jen Eigenbrode, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
    • “I leave this meeting thinking that all of Mars is habitable.” (Ibid.)



The private sector can’t always do it: B612 fundraising falls short

known NEOS ca.2007.Armagh observatory

Known NEOs ca. 2007. Credit: Armagh Observatory

Recent stories in Nature and New Scientist report that the B612 Foundation is nowhere near reaching its goal of soliciting sufficient funds to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope, called Sentinel.

The Sentinel mission web site offers no information on the estimated cost of this project. I’ve heard various estimates of the price tag for such a mission, ranging between $200 million and $500 million. (Disclosure: I work as a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program. No one asked me to write this post.)

Jacob Aron reports in New Scientist (“Don’t fear apocalyptic asteroids: you’re safer than you think,” published online today) on B612’s Sentinel fundraising efforts to date. Traci Watson reports in Nature (“Private asteroid hunt lacks cash to spy threats in orbit,” Vol. 522, 25 June) that B612’s fundraising “progress has been slow.”

That’s putting it mildly. What concerns me more than the slow pace of fundraising, though, is how B612 has spent the money it’s raised thus far. If I were a donor, I would not be happy about it.

B612’s Form 990 reports to the Internal Revenue Service for 2011, 2012, and 2013 — public documents that are available here — indicate that most of the few million dollars the foundation has raised thus far has been spent on salaries for foundation president Ed Lu and chief operating officer Danica Remy, advertising and promotion, conferences and meetings, accounting and office expenses, and fundraising, leaving little to start building a telescope.

B612 is a player in International Asteroid Awareness Day, coming up on June 30. It would be interesting to know how much B612 has invested in this event. Somehow I doubt that after three years of expensive yet anemic fundraising efforts, suddenly Asteroid Day will prompt an outpouring of substantial donations to B612. Whatever might be raised could end up spent on the next big media event.

I blogged last year about how Asteroid Day seems designed, first, to publicize various special projects – a science fiction film about an asteroid impact disaster, a pricey astronomy festival, and B612’s Sentinel project, for instance — and, second, to “educate the public.” I remain convinced that Asteroid Day’s primary purpose is publicity, with “education” coming up second. (See, for example, Asteroid Day’s online “shop,” where you can buy tickets to see the sci-fi disaster film and T-shirts that advertise it. Period.)

B612 reported revenues of $89,515 for 2011 and expenses of $148,683, including $96,100 in “professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” and $52,583 in “other expenses.” (The 2011 Form 990 reports “gifts, grants, contributions and memberships received” of $43,450 for 2007, $37,793 for 2008, $1,565 for 2009, and $2,903 for 2012.)

For 2012, B612 reported $1.2 million in revenues and $1.1 million in expenses, including $75,000 for advertising and promotion, $86,000 for “conferences, conventions, and meetings,” $127,000 for consultants, $40,000 in compensation for Lu and $84,750 for Remy.

(For 2011 and 2012, B612 filed its IRS reports “c/o Silicon Valley Community Foundation.” I don’t know the relationship between the two organizations.)

For 2013, B612 reported $1.619 million in revenues and $1.556 million in expenses, including $240,000 in compensation for Lu, $204,279 in compensation for Remy, $271,277 in “other wages,” $527,880 for advertising and promotion, $134,986 for travel, $9,645 for conferences and meetings, and $22,426 for fundraising expenses. B612 reported net assets at the end of 2013 totaling $195,931.

If you’re interested in hearing from some of the people who are actually engaged in the day-to-day work of finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth asteroids, tune in to a panel discussion taking place from 12:15-1:15 pm EDT on June 30, to be webcast live from the 13th meeting of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group. You can watch the webcast here:

Mars visions, then and now



In my continual efforts to tame the paper jungle in my office, I’ve come across my notes from a “robotic and human exploration of Mars strategic roadmap committee meeting,” held February 8-10, 2005, at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Given that yet another “humans to Mars summit” took place last week in Washington, D.C., I thought I’d convey a few highlights of discussion at the 2005 meeting.

Recall that it was on January 14, 2004, when then-President George W. Bush announced his “vision” for space exploration, a plan to “extend a human presence across the solar system.” The goal was to put people on the Moon by 2020 “as the launching point for missions beyond.” At the time, Sean O’Keefe was NASA administrator. Oddly (it seems odd to me, anyway), O’Keefe is speaking today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on U.S. strategy for civil and military space (O’Keefe is now a “distinguished senior advisor” at CSIS.)

Back to 2005 – here are some of the findings of the roadmap committee – which involved Michael Meyer of the NASA headquarters Mars exploration program office (he’s still there) and Firouz Naderi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s solar system exploration directorate (he’s still there, see below):

  • Human Mars exploration design reference mission development “must be re-initiated immediately. Two to three years will be required for preliminary design development. (The estimate at that time was that this mission would require the launch of 3-8 International Space Station (ISS) masses to low Earth orbit. According to NASA, the ISS weighs about 925,000 pounds, equivalent to the mass of about 320 automobiles.)
  • Use the ISS as a test bed for Mars exploration.
  • Mars sample return (MSR) is a capstone human exploration precursor mission. It could set the stage for a round-trip human exploration mission…”minus environmental control and life support systems and biology and the scale problem.”
    • “One or more MSR missions must precede human exploration.” (The thinking then was that if we can’t execute an MSR mission, then we certainly can’t execute a human mission.)

In 2005, nuclear-fission-powered propulsion was being considered for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle that would have to be built to get people beyond LEO. (The nuclear option fell by the wayside, thank goodness.) The assumption then was that the Mars Science Laboratory would launch in 2009 (it went up in 2011), to be followed by an MSR mission during the next decade and a large astrobiology field laboratory after that.

There was discussion at the 2005 meeting about the hazard of radiation exposure for a human mission to Mars. This discussion continues. The Wall St. Journal reported earlier this month on new research results showing “that cosmic rays during an interplanetary voyage could cause subtle brain damage, leaving astronauts confused, forgetful and slow to react to the unexpected.”

Back to the present: as Space News reported in a story about last week’s gathering of humans-to-Mars advocates, “While NASA argues there is a growing consensus that the agency’s long-term human spaceflight goal should be landing people on Mars, a recent conference suggested there is less agreement about exactly how NASA should accomplish that goal.” covered last week’s gathering, too, reporting that JPL’s Firouz Naderi (see above) called for “an incremental, multiple-mission approach that envisions getting astronauts to Phobos by 2033, then down to the Martian surface by 2039.” This approach could make humans-to-Mars “technologically and economically feasible,” he said.

The current administration has decided that sending astronauts to an asteroid will precede sending humans to Mars (or back to the Moon, or anyplace else.) Mars sample return, identified by the space science community for decades as a top priority in planetary exploration, remains too expensive to undertake. (Advocates will undoubtedly argue with me about this point, but the reality today is that no organization or group of organizations has taken on this challenge.)

So, at the same time that I am bothered by the very idea of sending people to Mars, with the intent of settling the planet, I am not too bothered, as I think a human mission to Mars is much further off into the future than advocates believe it is. In the United States, the world’s top spender on space exploration, the 2016 presidential election will bring a transition that is as likely as not to include new national goals in space. And who knows what they’ll be?

Stay tuned.

What to do about hazardous asteroids: many ideas…



At the 4th international Planetary Defense Conference (April 13-17, Frascati, Italy), proposals were aired for ground-and space-based systems designed to detect asteroids that pose a risk of Earth impact and different methods of deflecting or destroying asteroids found to be on an impact course with Earth.

For a summary of PDC presentations on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposed space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, called NEOCAM; the B612 Foundation’s proposed Sentinel space-based NEO survey telescope; and a comparative analysis of the two proposals conducted at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, see this report in Space News. You can also watch the archived webcast of PDC talks by Amy Mainzer/NEOCAM, Hal Reitsema/Sentinel, and Bhavya Lal/Science and Technology Policy Institute (these three talks start at about 45:00).

A paper published by the NEOCAM team reports on the team’s simulations of NEOCAM operations. See my blog post of February 23 for details. For information on Sentinel, see this abstract (undated), posted in the B612 Foundation’s online newsroom under “scientific papers.”

As Reitsema explained in his PDC talk, the Sentinel project has now coupled itself with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST ) project, due to come on line in 2022 (if work stays on schedule).

On an LSST “frequently asked questions” page hosted by the University of Washington, this information is offered on LSST’s schedule and cost:

The LSST is scheduled for first engineering light in 2014 and for early science operations beginning in 2015. Full science operations will begin in 2016. [Calendar years] The LSST project will cost $390M through first light, including all construction, hardware, software, data management, and a 30% contingency. [2006 $] This work-based cost estimate has remained constant within 15% since the beginning of the project phase in 2003. Significant milestones have already been reached, including the casting of the primary/tertiary mirror. The LSST survey will last for ten years.”

This information is out of date.

The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy are the primary sponsors of the project. In July 2012, NSF reported that LSST would cost about $665 million. In March of this year, LSST Director Steve Kahn reported to the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics that LSST would cost $681 million, with construction scheduled to be complete by September 30, 2022, and full science operations planned to begin in 2023. LSST operating costs are estimated at $37 million a year (2013 U.S. dollars) over a 10-year period.

On to asteroid impact “mitigation” ideas – I put mitigation in quote marks because some of my colleagues have questioned the labeling of asteroid deflection or destruction concepts as impact mitigation options. Impact mitigation is more a matter of disaster planning and response, in the event that an Earth impact should occur….

There’s a lot yet to be learned about hitting or moving an asteroid. (And it should be noted that most of what’s known about asteroid deflection is a product of computer modeling. Keith Holsapple of the University of Washington observed at the conference that modeling results can be iffy.) One message I took home from PDC 2015 is that there’s no all-purpose asteroid deflection approach. Every asteroid is different, and every close approach and impact hazard is different, so deflection options will have to be developed case by case.

PDC 2015 offered considerable discussion of “the nuclear option” – that is, using nuclear “devices” to disrupt or destroy an asteroid on a certain impact course with Earth. A contingent from the Department of Energy weapons labs (Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia), along with university researchers and NASA specialists, offered a range of perspectives on the nuclear option as well as kinetic-impactor concepts. As Paul Miller of Lawrence Livermore National Lab noted, “composition plays a central role in how an asteroid reacts to a kinetic impactor or nuclear deflection.” Dan Scheeres of the University of Colorado raised the question of how shape and topography might affect a kinetic deflection attempt. Laser ablation or nuclear blasts are sensitive to surface topography. Ion beam deflection is not affected by these factors, as ions implant into the surface and do not “reflect,” he said. Kirsten Howley of Livermore addressed the importance of the composition of the asteroid and the spectrum of the device in the case of a stand-off (off-surface) nuclear deflection attempt.

Dave Dearborn of Livermore said the kinetic impactor option looks like a good choice when the asteroid is small and the impact warning time is long. In the case of a large asteroid and a short warning time, the stand-off nuclear option might be the only viable option, he said. Galen Gisler of Los Alamos National Lab agreed with Dearborn, adding that for small asteroids, “kinetic impact is surprisingly effective and would be even more effective for volatile-rich bodies.”

“Existing devices can deflect essentially all NEOs,” Dearborn noted, so there’s no need to develop new nuclear devices for planetary defense. He also noted that nuclear warheads are not an option for planetary defense as they are designed to withstand reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Philip Lubin of the University of California-Santa Barbara said directed-energy deflection is a very practical option. “I think it’s ridiculous not to have planetary defense [systems] pre-deployed,” he asserted. Young people “enjoy blowing up everything they can,” he said, so why not place directed-energy deflection systems in space for planetary defense and, while they’re waiting for an asteroid target, let them be used to blow up space debris?

Brent Barbee of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center reported on a study being led by Iowa State University’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center of suborbital asteroid interception and fragmentation for very-short-warning-time impact scenarios. This concept involves a high-altitude interception by a Minuteman III missile.

Bob Weaver of Los Alamos described a mission concept for a hypervelocity asteroid impact vehicle (HAIV) to intercept NEOs as small as 50 meters. This concept involves a two-body spacecraft, with one performing a subsurface nuclear explosive detonation (that is, contact versus stand-off) within 10 meters of the NEO center. Modeling shows that a low-density impactor would not go deep enough. This “leading impactor” needs to be redesigned to be a “penetrator.” Bong Wie of Iowa State’s Asteroid Deflection Research Center said he is seeking funding to develop an emergency asteroid defense project, involving a non-nuclear multiple kinetic impactor vehicle that would vaporize or pulverize or vaporize 50-150 meter objects.   “A lot of people would not like to have nuclear testing in space,” he said.

Brian Kaplinger of the Florida Institute of Technology raised the possibility of errors in modeling NEO orbits, composition, porosity, and shape, noting that “not all dependencies can be adequately resolved in any simulation.”

There were many more talks at PDC 2015. I offer just a few highlights. While talks at the conference revealed a lot of progress on planetary defense mission concepts and designs since PDC 2013, it appears that the nearest-term possibility for a planetary defense demonstration mission might be the NASA-ESA Asteroid Impact Deflection and Assessment project (AIDA) – including NASA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) demonstration and ESA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission concept study, begun in 2011, has just proceeded to Phase A this year, with a proposed launch date of 2022.

The current schedule for the robotic segment of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – which will collect a multi-ton boulder from the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and include a demonstration of the “enhanced gravity tractor” method for planetary defense – calls for a launch in 2020, asteroid rendezvous in 2022, and planetary defense demonstration in 2023. This schedule is contingent on many factors, perhaps the most important one being whether ARM survives the annual budget process over the next few years and a presidential transition in 2017.

Stay tuned.

Planetary defense: it’s a global thing



I spent the week of April 13-17 in Frascati, Italy, attending the 4th international Planetary Defense Conference (PDC) – a biennial gathering of experts concerned with protecting Earth from future asteroid impacts. Here I’ll offer some highlights of the week’s discussions.

First, the good news: of the more than 12,000 known near-Earth objects (NEOs) – asteroids and comets predicted to come within 0.3 astronomical units (28 million miles/45 million kilometers) of Earth on a future orbit around the Sun – none pose a risk of impact with Earth (See the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s NEO impact risk table). Of these 12,000 NEOs, 1,574 are currently deemed “potentially hazardous” – predicted to come within 0.05 AU (4.65 million mi./7.5 million km) of Earth on a future orbit. These numbers will change, of course as new NEOs are found and further observations of known objects improve the accuracy of predictions of future orbital movements.

Space agency officials from around the world reported at the PDC on the status of their plans for planetary defense – ranging from work with emergency management agencies in case of an unavoidable asteroid impact with Earth to plans for launching multiple spacecraft to an asteroid on an impact course with Earth to deflect it off its orbital path toward us. Collaboration and coordination is improving among the various agencies, programs, and projects focused on finding, tracking, and characterizing NEOs and identifying those that are potentially hazardous to Earth, in part due to the formation of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN). NASA’s NEO Observations Program, the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness Programme-NEO Segment, and the NEO Dynamic Site (NEODyS), among others, are participating in IAWN.

NASA’s NEO Observations Program* head Lindley Johnson said the NASA program’s updated program objective is to discover at least 90 percent of NEOs larger than 140 meters “as soon as possible.” Primary assets supported by NASA to find and track NEOS are the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System) facility in Hawaii, the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, and NASA’s space-based NEOWISE infrared telescope. Primary assets supported by NASA to characterize NEOs are the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the Goldstone station of NASA’s Deep Space Network, the Infrared Telescope Facility, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The NASA program currently has an annual budget of $40 million. The President’s budget request for the program in fiscal year 2016 is $50 million.

Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the NEO segment of the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme –NEO Segment , said SSA Programme funding for 2013-2016 is 50 million euro. (The SSA Programme is responsible for space weather and space debris as well as for NEO observations.) One of ESA’s new NEO projects is NEOSTel. The agency has funded detailed design work for this automated, ground-based “fly-eye” telescope system to survey the sky for NEOs. Completion of the project, which ultimately will include four telescopes, will cost about 10 million euro, Drolshagen said.

Meanwhile, ESA’s NEO Coordination Centre is working on more closely integrating the European Asteroid Research Network (EARN) and the NEO Dynamic Site (NEODyS) with its own database, he noted. EARN maintains an online database of physical and dynamical properties of NEOs. According to the NEODyS web site, the NEO segment of ESA’s SSA Programme will “progressively assume larger responsibility for the operations of NEODyS…. The NEODyS service is expected to be federated, together with others including the Spaceguard Central Node and the EARN Asteroid Database, in a new comprehensive SSA-NEO information service.”

Boris Shustov of the Institute of Astronomy at the Russian Academy of Sciences reported on Russian assets involved in NEO observations. Telescopes in the International Scientific Optical Network (managed by the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics at the Russian Academy of Sciences) devote some time to NEO observations. Next year, a new wide-angle 1.6 meter telescope, AZT-33VM, located at the boundary of Mongolia, will see first light. This telescope will be suited to detecting large (greater than 50 meters) distant asteroids.

Alan Harris, European Union coordinator for the EU’s NEOshield Project, reported on the start-up of NEOshield-2. NEOShield was set up to carry out a detailed analysis of open questions relating to realistic options for preventing NEO impacts with Earth. This March, work began on NEOshield-2. The EU granted $4 million to NEOshield. It has granted $6 million to NEOshield-2, for work to September 2017.

Makoto Yoshikawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reported on the creation of the Asia-Pacific Asteroid Observation Network. Current members include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Macau, Indonesia, Mongolia, Taiwan, and China.

NASA, ESA, JAXA, and others indicated they would like to build their own space-based NEO survey telescopes – if they had the budget for it. None do.

Stay tuned for PDC 2015, Part 2 – in which I will discuss reports from two teams working on concepts for a space-based NEO survey telescope.

* My work is funded in part by the NEO Observations Program. However, no one at NASA asked me to write this blog post.

More on manifest destiny


A recent tweet by Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla, citing my blog post of July 24, 2013, “The frontier metaphor: still worrisome” – appears to have stirred up the hornets’ nest of space libertarians. This week I’ve received a stream of mostly-anonymous comments on Twitter and on my blog posts. They have all been of the same ilk – dismissive, condescending, sometimes plain old rude. (I give credit to my old friend Rand Simberg for not hiding behind anonymity.)

Really, gentlemen….

I typically do not post anonymous comments on my blog. I don’t blog anonymously. I’m happy to engage in dialogue with people of different opinions. For productive dialogue to occur, participants need to know at least a little bit about each other. I will not respond to specific insults, as they are of course intended to put me on the defensive. I have no need to go there….

As my faithful readers will know, for more than a decade I have been engaged in an ongoing project of research, analysis, and critique of the ideology of space exploration, in particular its embrace of the frontier metaphor and the idea of manifest destiny. As a U.S. citizen, I am especially interested in how and why this ideology has long been embedded in U.S. space policy and whether and how it serves the public interest.

The latest book I’ve been reading about the history of the idea of manifest destiny and its embrace by U.S. policy makers digs deep into the religious roots of this belief.

In Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (1995), historian Anders Stephanson’s premise is that the idea of “manifest destiny is of signal importance in the way the United States came to understand itself in the world and still does.” It’s an “institutionally embedded” ideology. Stephanson writes that “The world as God’s ‘manifestation’ and history as predetermined ‘destiny’ had been ideological staples of the strongly providentialist period in England between 1620 and 1660,” the period when English Puritans migrated to North America. The related belief in “right” – that is, that white Europeans had been “chosen by the finger of God to possess (America)” – is at least as old. These beliefs came to underlay a U.S. national narrative of “prophecy, messianism, and historical transcendence.”

If you’d like to refresh your memory about previous blog posts on this subject, you can check out, for starters, “Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again”, February 26, 2015; “Disturbing visions of our future in space” – “Disturbing visions of our future in space”, October 8, 2014; “More on American exceptionalism” – “More on American exceptionalism”, February 13, 2014; and “Private property rights in space: still a bad idea”, November 13, 2013.

I would also recommend my peer-reviewed publications on this subject, such as:

  • “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Lunies, eds., Societal Impacts of Spaceflight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 2007 (available free at;
  • “Fifty years of NASA and the public: What NASA? What publics?”, pp. 151-182 in S.J. Dick, Ed., NASA’s First 50 Years: Historical Perspectives (NASA SP-2010-4704), NASA History Division, Washington, D.C., 2010. (also available for free at; and
  • “Frontier days in space: are they over?”, Space Policy 13(3), August 1997.

I offer this suggestion to the critics of my work: boys, do your homework. I’ve done mine.

Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again



Today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on U.S. human exploration goals and commercial space competitiveness takes testimony from six white, male, human-exploration advocates, including three ex-astronauts.

I do not anticipate hearing a diversity of views from this line-up. Welcome to the Republican-controlled 114th Congress. (Update, Feb. 26: Marcia Smith provides a good summary of the hearing.)

Meanwhile, pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers are lining up to promote a space colonization (they call it “settlement,” I call it “colonization”) agenda on Capitol Hill.

I was inclined to ignore their recent noise-making. Then I decided to add another chapter to my ongoing critique of this antiquated ideology.

A “pioneering space declaration” coming out of last week’s invitation-only “pioneering space national summit” claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” (I think they must mean “should be,” and I disagree.)

The National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), two of the organizations behind last week’s summit, announced yesterday that they and several other groups have created an Alliance for Space Development (ASD). Among ASD’s proclaimed objectives for this year is “incorporation of space development and settlement into the NASA Space Act.”

Members of this alliance include the Tea Party in Space, whose mission is “to educate and engage the American people and their elected representatives in applying the core principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets to the rapid and permanent expansion of American civilization into the space frontier, focusing on strategies for privatization, deregulation, and appropriate technology development partnerships between government institutions and the private sector.”

NSS’s “vision” is “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”

The Space Frontier Foundation claims its “purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.”

And now more advocacy groups (or should I say Web sites?) are popping up to promote the same agenda. The rhetoric is so familiar (and still disturbing)….

An outfit called the EarthLight Foundation – which offers no information on who or what constitutes the group – has a “vision,” too: “To carry the light of life to places now dark, the seeds of life to places now dead, and the eyes, hands, and minds of humanity to places yet unseen, untouched, and unknown.” Projects of this foundation include an “Endowment for Tomorrow,” an “Up! Space Celebration,” and a “New Worlds Institute.” No information is provided on the first two, um, things.

The New Worlds Institute, which claims to be dedicated to “a future of unlimited possibility and abundance created by the human imagination, powered by the resources of space and made real using principles of democratic free enterprise,” says it plans a New Worlds Conference “about the future, hope and the infinite possibilities offered by an infinite frontier…. In 2045 this world will no longer be the only world we call home.” No information is provided on who or what constitutes this institute.

As I’ve said before,* “Examining the history of space flight advocacy reveals an ideology of space flight that draws deeply on a durable American cultural narrative – a national mythology – of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits. This ideology rests on a number of assumptions, or beliefs, about the role of the United States in the global community, American national character, and the ‘right’ form of political economy.”

The advocacy groups discussed in this post are promoting an outdated ideology as a foundation for national space policy. As a citizen, taxpayer, and policy analyst, I protest. Advocates for space settlement and other forms of exploiting extraterrestrial resources are overwhelmingly white and male. We females constitute 51 percent of the world’s population, and a majority of people on Earth are not “white.” We’ve had no national or international dialogue on goals and objectives for space exploration that could benefit all of humanity (I don’t care what the advocates say, asteroid mining would benefit mining companies, not humanity). Any “dialogues” that the pro-space community may point to have been organized by space advocates.

For decades, U.S. public opinion polling has shown that while a majority of respondents have supported having a space program, a majority has not supported spending more money on it. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Initiative on Science and Society for the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked (U.S.) respondents “to consider whether the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is essential or not essential given the relative costs of manned vs. robotic space exploration”: 59 percent agreed that astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program. I must note, however, that this result says nothing about these respondents’ views on colonizing the solar system.

*Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007.


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