The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 3



Yesterday I posted the second part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 3, my conclusions. Full text with references and footnotes is available here.


To sum up, the conventional rhetoric of space exploration perpetuates a long-standing, yet outdated, “all-American” ideology. Burke (1969b) defined ideology as both a belief system and a partial and thus deceptive view of reality. The belief system perpetuated by space rhetoric is a sort of fundamentalist ideology, excluding or rejecting as unenlightened those who do not advocate the colonization, development, and exploitation of space.

Examining the rhetoric of space exploration as a cultural ritual, performed for the purpose of maintaining the current social order, with its lopsided distribution of power and resources, reveals how it perpetuates the values of those in control of that order – in this case, the values of the military-industrial complex (progress, profit, competition, war).

In order to survive as a cultural institution, space exploration needs an ideology. It needs to have some connection to widely held beliefs. It needs a role in a cultural narrative. But a new narrative may be warranted to replace the outdated and counterproductive nationalistic frontier story.14

 The 21st century cultural environment demands a new approach to U.S. space policy making, a collaborative approach that will require abandoning the conventional rhetoric of competitiveness and dominance. There have been calls for change. Some have advocated adopting a collaborative and cooperative rather than a nationalistic and competitive approach to space exploration. Others have called for erasing the hard boundaries dividing civilian, military, and commercial space.

It is time to consider the feasibility and utility of a trans-sectoral, transnational space policy that transcends the traditional, outdated boundaries constructed between the interests of the United States and other nations and between civilian, commercial, and military interests.

Rhetorical transcendence is, in Burke’s conception, a symbolic bridging or merging, a way of getting past the either-or options of acceptance or rejection. How might space policy makers transcend perceived differences in perspective, transcend “relativism” for “relationism,” transcend compromise for connectivity? How might policy makers align their interests and motives and achieve Burke’s rhetorical aim of identification?

One option would be to broaden the frame for policy making by (re)establishing that the context for space policy is the Outer Space Treaty, the international law that governs all of human activity in all of outer space. A broader frame would reveal the consubstantiality of all involved in the endeavor of space exploration.

It also might be useful to broaden this rhetorical frame even further toward transcending policy and its partner, politics. The origin of the words “policy” and “politics” is the Greek word “politeia,” meaning “citizenship.” The Greek “politikos” means “civic.” In contemporary usage, the English words politics and policy have acquired an array of meanings that emphasize the shrewdness, calculation, and expediency involved in their execution.15 (The English word “police” has the same Greek root as politic and policy.)

Raising awareness that policy making is an element of citizenship and that space policy making is an element of global citizenship might be a way toward transcending conflicts.

This brief review of space rhetoric reveals a dominant narrative and some subordinate narratives as well. The dominant narrative advances the values of the dominant culture and justifies unilateral action and the globalization of “the American way.” Competing with this narrative is a vision of what Rushing (1986) called “utopian ideas of collective progress” and “a spiritual humbling of self.”

More than 40 years after Kenneth Boulding told us we had to get the message, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are biological systems living in an ecological system. This competing narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space becomes a vision of humanity’s collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there.


The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 2



Yesterday I posted the first part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 2. Full text with references and footnotes is available here. Tomorrow I’ll post Part 3, my conclusions. 

Though the frontier metaphor dominates, other perspectives have surfaced from time to time in the discourse on space exploration. 

In 1965, economist Kenneth Boulding offered another perspective on the value of exploring space. “As a result of [space] exploration…and the explosion of scientific knowledge,” he said, “Earth has become a tiny sphere, closed, limited, crowded, and hurtling through space to unknown destinations.” Echoing futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s well known conception of “spaceship Earth,”9 Boulding said our planet “has become a space ship, not only in our imagination but also in the hard realities of the social, biological, and physical system in which [humans are] enmeshed” (n.p.).

“It is clear,” he concluded, “that much human behavior and many human institutions…are entirely inappropriate to a small closed space ship. We cannot have cowboys and Indians…or even a cowboy ethic…. Man [sic] is finally going to have to face the fact that he is a biological system living in an ecological system” (n.p.).

In the mid-‘80s, Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) made the case that the post-Apollo-era focus of space exploration on the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life was a product of a widespread understanding that humankind exists in a universe, not only on planet Earth. The narrative of space exploration might better reflect this understanding by telling a story of “a spiritual humbling of self” rather than “an imperialistic grabbing of territory.” And in the ‘90s, cultural studies scholar Constance Penley (1992) observed that while “the WASP space cowboy version of spaceflight” has persisted from the Apollo era into the present, at the same time NASA “is still the most popular point of reference for utopian ideas of collective progress.” In the popular imagination, she said, “NASA continues to represent…perseverance, cooperation, creativity and vision,” and these meanings embedded in the narrative of space flight “can still be mobilized to rejuvenate the near-moribund idea of a future toward which dedicated people…could work together for the common good.”

While current U.S. space policy highlights colonization and exploitation, the U.S. space science program is following a path of exploration for understanding. The study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the origin and evolution of Earth itself and its sister planets, the origins and evolution of life in the universe and the origins and evolution of the universe itself are intricately intertwined. Astrobiology – the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe – offers new ways to think about the past, present, and future place of human and other life in space.10

Astrobiologists have learned that life as we know it – carbon-based cellular life – can survive in virtually all terrestrial environmental extremes, from nuclear radiation to permafrost and Earth’s deep, dark subsurface. At the same time that research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life is revealing that life is highly resilient, these same lines of research are helping to reveal how life and its environment are deeply interdependent, improving understanding of life on Earth and prospects for life elsewhere, and contributing to understanding of global climate history and evolution.

Among some members of the space community, “space security” is a term now used to draw civil, commercial, and military space policy issues inside a single, broad frame. The Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington, D.C., think tank, runs a “Space Security Project” intended “to highlight the strategic, political, technical and economic questions surrounding the potential weaponization of space.”11 As the United States is considering the option of “space-based weapons…, the future of space is nearing a crossroads,” CDI observes. “Will the 50-year tradition of international cooperation and space sanctuary prevail; or, will the fear of military and/or economic domination drive nations to compete aggressively for primacy in the ultimate “high ground”? The Secure World Foundation of Superior, Colorado, a partner of the CDI, promotes space security as well, envisioning “a global space commons that is free from threat and available for the benefit of all humanity.”12

Another D.C. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks of “smart power in space” instead of pioneering the space frontier: “In much the same way that the Apollo program and Vietnam War era were then the two most visible displays of soft and hard power, we are now faced with a similar situation…. We must now signal to the world that we are not a nation that lives by use of military force alone. We must increase our support of civil space utilization and exploration to bring it back in line with spending on military and intelligence applications of space” (Sabathier and Faith 2008, n.p.).

Where does Burke come in?

[American rhetorical critic Kenneth] Burke’s dramatistic criticism – in particular, his idea of transcendence by perspective – is a productive way of exploring the established rhetoric of space policy and the rhetoric of alternate narratives and speculating about transcending perceived differences among them. The “metatext” of official and popular rhetoric about space exploration warrants full-blown Burkean analysis. A full-blown analysis is beyond the scope of this talk. But as food for thought, some observations are offered here.

“The motivation out of which [one] writes,” according to Burke (1973), “is synonymous with the structural way in which he puts events and values together.” A rhetor may be “conscious of selecting a certain kind of imagery to reinforce a certain kind of mood,” according to Burke, but “cannot possibly be conscious of the interrelationships among all these equations” (p. 20). An analyst, however, may be able to find these patterns by examining the completed text. Such an analysis aims to identify the rhetorical strategy employed in a text, the purpose of the symbolic action in it, “the functions which the structure serves” (p. 101).

By employing what Burke (1973) called planned incongruity – “a rational prodding or coaching of language so as to see around the corner of everyday usage…a kind of metaphorical projection” (pp. 400-401) – an analyst can look beyond common meanings of terms and consider new meanings. What Burke called terministic screens – rhetorical frames of power, act, and order that highlight some aspects of a text and downplay others – are structured to direct audiences toward certain meanings and away from others. A new perspective afforded by planned incongruity offers a way of transcending such screens by enabling consideration of other meanings.

The terministic screen deployed with the frontier metaphor includes terms such as pioneering, freedom, destiny, leadership, enterprise, progress. This screen of frontier terms evokes nationalism, capitalism, ownership, conquest, exploitation. What other meanings might be coaxed out of this screen of terms?

Recall that Burke (1969a) said “distinctions…arise out of a great central moltenness” (p. xix), and it is in areas of indistinction or ambiguity – closer to that molten center, as it were – where transformations can occur. And then consider that the root of the word “frontier” is the Old French word for “front.” In the English language, that word “front” conveys a complex of meanings, ranging from the most common definition – the part of anything that faces forward – to the definition that probably comes closest to the meaning of “front” in “frontier”: an area of activity, conflict, or competition. A common military definition of “front” is also tied up in the meaning of “frontier”; that is, the area of contact between opposing combat forces. Other meanings of “front” that should be considered in assessing the meaning of the frontier metaphor are: a façade; a position of leadership or authority; and a person or thing that serves as a cover for secret, disreputable, or illegal activity.13

Consider, as well, the possible meanings of “progress.” The root of “progress” is the Latin word meaning “to go forward.” J.B. Bury (1932) said progress is movement “in a desirable direction” – but he also noted that “it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable” (p. 2). In their histories of the idea of progress, both Bury and Robert Nisbet called progress a dogma. While Bury identified progress as an idea originating in the modern era, Nisbet (1980) traced its roots to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and he documented how it evolved to take on the qualities of destiny and “historical necessity.” (p. 47).

Nisbet declared progress the most important idea in modern Western history. This modern idea of necessary and inevitable forward movement is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative of U.S. space flight. Beginning with the creation of the United States of America, science and technology became the means of American progress, and conquest and exploitation became the morally imperative method. Ultimately progress came to be thought of as the accumulation of material wealth came to be a measure of progress. This deeply seated belief in progress provides a moral justification for materialism and consumerism.

What meanings are space policy makers and advocates intending to convey – and what meanings are they in fact conveying – when they talk about the space frontier, progress in space exploration?


The rhetoric of space exploration, redux



In 2008, I presented a paper at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society* on the rhetoric of U.S. space exploration. I’ve recently re-read the paper and find it still on the mark. I expect, sadly, that no matter who wins the presidential election this fall, this rhetoric – and the ideology that drives it – won’t change. Here’s Part 1 of the paper. I’ll post more tomorrow. I’ve posted the full paper on this site (see the left menu) for those who want to check references and footnotes.

In the early 21st century, the discourse on U.S. space policy remains mired in Cold War-era thinking that pits the United States “against” other space-faring nations and treats civilian, military, and commercial space as separate (and not necessarily equal) regimes. Policy makers and advocates alike tend to employ negative rhetorical strategies, describing space exploration and development as a matter of “us versus them,” winners and losers, leaders or followers.

How might policy makers and advocates transcend the divisions they have constructed between the maintenance of space for peaceful purposes and the exploitation of space for commercial or military purposes, the exploration of space for scientific purposes and the conquest of space for political purposes? What kind of space policy could a new U.S. administration put in place to transcend perceived conflicts?

Rhetorical critic Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) once wrote, “Space is too big to be conquered.” Starting from this premise, I will explore whether and how the global space community can transcend perceived conflicts, divisions, and differences to craft a productive global space policy for the 21st century and beyond. To paraphrase Burke, my aim, in the spirit of postpositivism, is to raise some useful questions rather than produce all the answers.


In the early 21st century, the trend in the space community, energized in the Reagan era and reinvigorated during the George W. Bush years, has been to view the solar system as an environment to exploit, as we have done with our own planetary environment. From this “dominionist” or “manifest destiny” perspective, our home planet, and our home solar system, are seen as resources here for humans to use as they like.

Examining the history of the U.S. space program reveals an ideology of space exploration that has at its core a rationale for conquest and exploitation. This ideology is deeply rooted in a durable American cultural narrative of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits (Billings, 2007). 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. According to this ideology of American exceptionalism, the United States is and must remain “Number One” in the world, as political, economic, scientific, technological, and moral leader.

The rhetoric of space policy and advocacy advances a conception of outer space as a place of wide-open spaces and limitless resources – a space frontier. Though the contemporary cultural environment is vastly different from that of the Cold-War era in which the space program began, the 21st century narrative of U.S. space exploration to date is still intimately intertwined with what feminist critic Susan Faludi (2007) calls “security myth” and “nationalist fantasy,” a story of cowboys on the space frontier.

Delving into the language, or rhetoric, of space flight is a productive way of exploring the meanings and motives that are embedded in and conveyed by the ideology of space exploration – the cultural narrative of pioneering the space frontier. Though a full-blown critique is beyond the scope of this paper, the rhetoric of space exploration is ripe for dramatistic criticism, an opportunity to explore “how broader systems of belief shape and determine the possibilities of acting” (Burke, 1969a, p. 22).

 The official narrative

The foundations of U.S. space policy are the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act and the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The NASA Act states that “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,”1 and the 1967 Treaty establishes that outer space is a domain to be used for the benefit of all humankind, preserved for peaceful purposes, and protected from sovereign claims.2

These foundational laws are devoid of references to frontiers, conquest, and exploitation. Yet the frontier metaphor is dominant in the rhetoric of space exploration.

A fundamental goal of U.S. space policy since the establishment of NASA in 1958 has been to establish, maintain, and strengthen U.S. leadership in space exploration and the global space community, and the influence of the narrative of American exceptionalism has remained strong in official space rhetoric into the 21st century. A sampling of official rhetoric from 1981 to 2008 highlights the persistence of these ideas of pioneering and conquest, leadership and dominance.

In its final report, “Pioneering the Space Frontier,” the National Commission on Space (1986), appointed by President Reagan to develop a long-term plan for space exploration, described “a pioneering mission for 21st– century America: to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier.” Humankind is “destined to expand to other worlds,” the commission said, and “our purpose” is to establish “free societies on new worlds.” Toward achieving those goals, “we must stimulate individual initiative and free enterprise in space” (pp. 2-3).

The George H. W. Bush administration declared that “America’s space program is what civilization needs…. America, with its tremendous resources, is uniquely qualified for leadership in space…our success will be guaranteed by the American spirit – that same spirit that tamed the North American continent and built enduring democracy.” The “prime objective” of the U.S. space program is “to open the space frontier.”3 NASA declared in response, “The imperative to explore” is embedded in our history…traditions, and national character,” and space is “the frontier” to be explored.4

Following suit, the Clinton administration asserted, “Space exploration has become an integral part of our national character, capturing the spirit of optimism and adventure that has defined this country from its beginnings…. Its lineage is part of an ancient heritage of the human race…deep in the human psyche and perhaps in our genes.”5

On behalf of the George W. Bush administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger (2006) said that questions about the President’s so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” – the call to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars – “boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.” According to national policy, Marburger said, “‘The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.’ So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.”

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005, said shortly upon arriving at the agency that the aim of the U.S. space program is “to make the expansion and development of the space frontier an integral part of what it is that human societies do.”6 “We want to be the world’s preeminent space-faring nation for all future time,” he said, “second to none.”7 Space exploration is linked with “core beliefs,” Griffin said, about what societies should be doing “on the frontiers of their time…. North Americans are the way we are because of the challenges of the frontier…. Western thought, civilization, and ideals represent a superior set of values,” these values are “irretrievably linked to” expansion, and now this expansion will continue into the human frontier of space, he asserted.8

Though Griffin has tempered his rhetoric somewhat over his three years as head of NASA, he and his deputies continued, in their public appearances and official statements, to envision a human future in space where “Americans” are in charge.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama issued space policy position papers during their 2008 campaigns for the presidency. McCain (McCain-Palin 2008) said in his statement that as President, he would “ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader; [and] commit to funding the NASA Constellation program [the new space transportation system that NASA must build to fulfill Bush’s “vision”] to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration.” (It is worth noting that in his statement McCain referred to George W. Bush’s “vision for space exploration” as “the NASA vision for space exploration.”) Obama (2008) said in his eight-page statement that, as President, he would “embrace” human exploration of space and “continue NASA’s architecture studies and advanced planning to ensure…that America can lead the world to long-term exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, in a collaborative and cost-effective way.”

It thus appears that, in 2009, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the George W. Bush administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.

[Update, July 2016: It thus appears that, in 2017, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the Obama administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.]

*”Kenneth Burke: Transcendence by Perspective,” July 29-July 1, 2008. Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) is the U.S.A.’s foremost rhetorical critic. He is known for his analytic method of dramatic criticism. My favorite of his many astute observations is, “War is a disease of peace.”

A new “vision” for SETI? ??


As my readers will know, over the past few years I have been engaged in a critique of the long-standing rationale for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The foundation for this rationale is the so-called Drake “equation,” which is a tool for speculating about the possibility of ETI – emphasis on speculating. (See my blog post of December 10, 2009.)

Now Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and director of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe*, has published a manifesto of sorts, in the journal Astrobiology, calling for an updated rationale and new “roadmap” for SETI.

Here’s Cabrol’s abstract (the paper is “open-access” at the journal’s web site until July 26): “Advances in planetary and space sciences, astrobiology, and life and cognitive sciences, combined with developments in communication theory, bioneural computing, machine learning, and big data analysis, create new opportunities to explore the probabilistic nature of alien life. Brought together in a multidisciplinary approach, they have the potential to support an integrated and expanded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a search that includes looking for life as we do not know it. This approach will augment the odds of detecting a signal by broadening our understanding of the evolutionary and systemic components in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), provide more targets for radio and optical SETI, and identify new ways of decoding and coding messages using universal markers.”

Still sounds like SETI to me… (see my blog post of July 16, 2015).

In my paper “Astrobiology in culture: the search for extraterrestrial life as ‘science’,” also published in Astrobiology (12(10), 2012), I examined the social construction of authority, credibility, and legitimacy for astrobiology and, in comparison, SETI. I concluded that “in the current cultural environment, non-experts might be led to conclude that the ultimate goal of astrobiology is to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life. For self-described astrobiologists working on SETI, it may be, but for the astrobiology community writ large, it is not.” I also noted in this paper that “one aspect of the study of the origin and evolution of life in the universe that scientists do not yet appear to have found a way to adequately explain to non-experts is the vast knowledge void that remains to be filled between scientific understanding of the emergence of life and the emergence of intelligence in life.” This is still the case.

I read Cabrol’s paper as part of a strategy to further blur the boundaries between astrobiology and SETI and reframe SETI as a scientifically valid research enterprise.

Cabrol and her colleagues in the SETI community place SETI firmly within the boundaries of the field of astrobiology. Yet SETI is not recognized as a research priority in either the astronomy and astrophysics or planetary science “decadal surveys” conducted for NASA by the National Academies. And at NASA, SETI is not within the boundaries of astrobiology. SETI is not addressed in the new NASA astrobiology strategy published last year, nor was it mentioned in preceding astrobiology “roadmaps” (published in 1998, 2003, and 2008). (Disclosure: My work is funded in part by NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this post.)

In a 2003 report, Life in the Universe: An Assessment of U.S. and International Programs in Astrobiology, the National Academies’ Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL – now known as the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences, CAPS) observed that SETI “represents the most romantic and publicly accessible aspect of the search for [ET] life, yet is perhaps the most problematic…. COEL sees no merit in debating the validity of a search whose negative results arguably tell us little about the ubiquity of life. The debate has no merit because the foundational motivation for the search in the popular aspiration to communicate with other forms of intelligence as much like or unlike us as we can imagine.” The committee concluded that SETI should continue seeking private funding.

“Since 1961,” Cabrol writes in her paper, “SETI’s intellectual framework has been centered on a probabilistic argument, the now-famous Drake equation…. Consisting of a combination of quantitative and speculative factors that were solely meant to engage a discussion within the scientific community on the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations willing and able to communicate in our galaxy, it quickly became SETI’s signature…. The term equation is misleading…. For instance, between fi and fc the notion of intelligence abruptly gives way to that of civilization, when they are, in fact, distinct notions. On our planet, one has not been demonstrated to necessarily lead to the other.”

I agree. In previous writings, including a recent paper (“The allure of alien life,” in S. Dick, ed., The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth, Cambridge UP, 2015), I have critiqued the squishiness of this so-called “equation”: “SETI’s goals and objectives rest upon a considerable number of assumptions – for example…that intelligence is an inevitable product of evolution, that extraterrestrial intelligence would inevitably produce technology like human technology, and that extraterrestrial intelligence or technology would be recognizable to terrestrial intelligence.” So this so-called equation “is merely a heuristic tool, an approach to roughly “guesstimating” how many planets in the Milky Way galaxy might host intelligent life…. [A] product, the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy, is impossible to calculate, and guesstimates range from zero to billions.”

In a June 24 article for the Huffington Post, anthropologist John Traphagan offers further thoughts on the limitations of this heuristic: “When SETI scientists imagine extraterrestrial civilizations, they usually think in terms of unified worlds that have one civilization. The image is very much unlike our world, in which we have multiple civilizations that are fractured and in conflict with other societies….”

Cabrol says SETI’s rationale “remains largely unchanged today despite advances in exploration and science that are relevant to the factors of the equation.” I certainly agree. She calls for an “expanded vision,” beginning with an acknowledgement “that so far, in our quest to find ET, we have only been searching for ourselves.” Again, I agree. Then she goes on to say, “The evolutionary pathways that lead to complex life on Earth strongly suggest that advanced life as we know it may be rare in the Universe and unlikely to be in a state of advancement that is temporally synchronous with us. However, that does not mean that other types of advanced intelligences are as rare…” (Hmmmm…)

Cabrol also claims that “searching for other versions of ourselves is not unique to SETI. This is equally true of astrobiology.” I would disagree with this claim. While SETI is, indeed, at least to date, looking for other versions of ourselves, astrobiology is exploring what makes an environment habitable, how life and environment have co-evolved on Earth, and what biochemistry might be like on planets unlike Earth. (For further details of what astrobiology is about today, see the science strategy cited above. Also see my 2012 paper in Astrobiology, cited above, in which I noted that “at the same time that research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life is revealing that life is highly resilient, these same lines of research are helping to reveal how life and its environment are deeply interdependent, improving understanding of life on Earth and prospects for life elsewhere, and contributing to understanding of global climate history and evolution.”) Also see the National Academies’ Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life report (2007), The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, known in the community as the “weird life” report.

“Now is the time for SETI to develop a roadmap and longterm [sic] vision that includes the search for life as we do not know it,” Cabrol concludes. “New tools are available that can enable this approach and help us decipher the evolutionary and probabilistic nature of advanced alien life…. All of them must be deployed when thinking about who, what, and where ET could be, and how it might communicate.”

I read this new approach as a more sophisticated way of describing how to search for ourselves. (See my blog post of July 12. At a congressional hearing just yesterday, SETI scientist Shelley Wright said, “The key factor in the Drake (heuristic) is L, the lifetime of a civilization. We are in our technological infancy, she said, and other civilizations could be hundreds of thousands of years older than ours.”)

To achieve this new “vision” for SETI, Cabrol says, “requires the exploitation of multidisciplinary synergies and an intellectual framework with a clear agenda and milestones. A similar intellectual and logistical structure was successfully established 20 years ago by NASA with the creation of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) for the understanding of life on Earth and beyond. However, past and present astrobiology roadmaps have not put substantial emphasis on alien intelligence, communication, or technology. In the coming months, the SETI Institute will be initiating efforts in this direction, and will invite the United States and international research communities to contribute to the drafting of a new scientific roadmap for SETI. We will explore resources for the development of a virtual institute and an intellectual framework for multidisciplinary projects specifically focused on the advancement of knowledge on ETI. Complementary to, and different from, the astrobiology roadmap, this vision will bridge the NAI roadmap [LB: the NAI does not have a roadmap – the NASA astrobiology community produced, and NASA endorsed, the 1998, 2003, and 2008 roadmaps and the 20-15 astrobiology strategy], augment it, and go beyond it. Its primary goal will be to ‘Understand how intelligent life interacts with its environment and communicates.’’”

The SETI community is definitely in need of a new roadmap. According to the SETI Institute’s roadmap, “SETI 2020,” published in 2002, “SETI has important implications for the future of society on Earth…. The actual discovery of a signal will lead to sociological, intellectual and practical changes in our civilization.” As I noted in my 2015 paper, “These claims, couched as certainties, are, at best, speculations. To accept them as certainties requires an embrace of the ideology of SETI, [a] belief system…reminiscent of messianism, millenarianism, anarcho-communism, and utopianism – ideologies that fostered hope for social change, salvation, a new way of living.”

As to what will come of the SETI Institute’s new campaign, we shall see.

* The SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center oversees research funded in large part, if not in total, by government (mostly NASA) grants. The work of the Institute’s Center for SETI Research is privately funded.


Another SETI love fest on the Hill



The House Science subcommittees on research and space held a joint hearing today on astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. It was a love fest. There was no discussion of astrobiology per se – only the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is not part of NASA’s astrobiology portfolio. (Disclosure: My work is partly funded by NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this blog post.)

Today’s hearing followed a series of hearings on astrobiology held by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (“Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond,” December 4, 2013; “Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe,” May 21, 2014 – the only witnesses invited to testify at this hearing were SETI researchers; “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade,” September 29, 2015). All of these hearings were love fests, and SETI was a subject of discussion at all of them. Full committee chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who attended today’s hearing, seems fond of SETI….

One of the witnesses invited to testify at today’s hearing was Shelley Wright, assistant profess of physics at the University of California, San Diego and principal investigator of a near-infrared SETI instrument and survey project called NIROSETI. The project is funded by Bill and Susan Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach, California.

(According to the Los Angeles Times, the Bloomfields spent $5.85 million “to help shape the outcomes of the 2014 elections in California.” In 2012, Bill Bloomfield spent $7.5 million to run against Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who won the election.)

Wright appeared to be testifying on behalf of the Breakthrough Listen project (see her written statement), though neither her biographical statement nor the project site indicates a connection. She said she has been working on optical SETI since 2000.

Wright tried to make the case that the need to pursue SETI research is more pressing than ever due to recent advances in science: “A decade ago, humanity was only able to speculate on whether Earth-like planets were common in our Galaxy. Primarily due to NASA’s successful Kepler Mission, we now know that one in every five Sun-like stars in our Galaxy harbors an Earth-like planet.”

(I’m not all convinced that scientists “know” this for a fact, but I’ll leave it to the scientists to discuss. And as far as I know, astrobiologists are still debating what exactly “earth-like” means.)

“We are in the midst of a dramatic paradigm shift,” she continued. “Now…we know that organic molecules are abundant in interstellar space; life on Earth exists in extreme conditions in every nook and cranny; and planets are common among stars…. Two decades ago, unknowns about astrobiology and the likelihood of extrasolar planets discouraged government funding for SETI. [Congress cancelled NASA’s 10-year SETI project in 1993.] Today, thanks to successful NASA, NSF, and nationally supported missions and investigations, former concerns about the value of SETI research no longer apply. While there is much to learn about astrobiology and exoplanets, the relevance for advancing SETI is stronger today than ever before in the history of humankind.”

As to whether concerns about the value of SETI research still apply, I’d say this point is still open for discussion. Astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science decadal surveys of research priorities conducted by the National Academies for NASA have not identified SETI as a research priority. Though I’d guess the SETI community will be lobbying to add SETI in future decadal surveys, it’s doubtful this effort will succeed, as higher-priority projects will keep SETI off the list of priorities for government funding.

Wright also argued that more (implicitly, government) funding is needed for SETI. “A huge disparity exists between the enormous public and scientific interest in whether we are unique in the Universe, and resources that are actually allocated to SETI research. Since 1977, the rate of refereed papers about SETI is roughly flat, with the number of worldwide dedicated SETI researchers level at about a mere two dozen…. Lack of a steady stream of support discourages the best and brightest young scientists from moving into this area of study…. Given the lack of sustained academic funds for SETI, few opportunities exist worldwide for researchers and students to engage actively in SETI. Yet, many people around the globe believe there is no single discovery which will more fundamentally change humankind’s view of our place in the Universe than to discover extraterrestrial intelligence (ET).”

I would be interested in knowing what evidence the SETI community has to back up that latter claim.

Wright also appealed to a perennial interest of Congress, reporting that China has completed construction of a 500-meter radio telescope “to be used for a very sensitive SETI program that promises to be more sensitive than previous SETI searches, thus challenging US leadership in this field.”

Rep. Smith asked NASA and National Science Foundation witnesses, how promising is the option of detecting optical transmissions from other worlds? Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said NASA is not pursuing this technology – “which I regret,” Smith responded. In his opening statement, Rep. Smith had noted, “While partnerships between the private and public sector in astronomy are well established, these ties need to be strengthened when it comes to exoplanet surveys and exploration related to astrobiology. Private sector groups like the Breakthrough Listen project provide funding opportunities to leverage limited government funding to maximize discovery. Going forward, I hope that NASA, NSF, and academia will expand public-private partnerships to advance optical laser transmission surveys, as it is a promising and exciting field of inquiry.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked Wright, how has the Drake equation changed? What does it predict now? (I call the Drake “equation” a heuristic. It’s not math….) Wright reiterated her claim that one in five stars has an Earth-like planet. She said the key factor in the Drake (heuristic) is L, the lifetime of a civilization. We are in our technological infancy, she said, and other civilizations could be hundreds of thousands of years older than ours.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up on this blog post with a review of a paper published in the journal Astrobiology articulating a new rationale for SETI, authored by Nathalie Cabrol, director of the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (the center that oversees government (mostly NASA)-funded astrobiology research). My first read of the paper leads me to conclude that this new rationale is more expansive – this paper actually addresses some concerns I’ve been raising in recent years, in talks, on this blog, and in the chapter I contributed to The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth (Dick, ed., 2015). But this “new” approach to SETI still seems to rely on some basic assumptions that I think are worth further critique.

I suspect that Wright’s testimony and Cabrol’s paper are part of a strategy to lobby for NASA and/or NSF to start funding SETI research. For the reason I stated above, I’m not at all sure it will work. We’ll see.

Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting episode….

Comets, asteroids, dwarf planets: what’s going on



If you’re interested in space science, you might enjoy some interesting talks I heard last week about ongoing and upcoming space missions. These talks were presented to NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, and the video recordings of the talks have been archived (see below).

I would especially recommend these talks:

  • Bonnie Buratti, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The Rosetta spacecraft will execute a controlled crash into the comet at the end of September. (Boohoo!)
  • Carol Raymond, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on the Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres (following the spacecraft’s investigation of the asteroid Vesta a few years back). Dawn’s end-of-mission date was June 30. Just in time, NASA approved an extension of the Dawn mission, to continue its study of Ceres.
  • Hal Weaver, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which is now moving on to study Kuiper belt objects. (This mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern is well known as the mission’s chief spokesperson. I found Weaver, the project scientist, equally engaging.)
  • Dante Lauretta, University of Arizona, on the OSIRIS-ReX mission to collect and return a sample from the asteroid Bennu. OSIRIS-ReX is scheduled to launch in September.

The agenda for the meeting is available here. Click on “(video)” after the titles of the talks to watch them (you can click on talk titles to look at Powerpoint slides, but I’d recommend watching the talks first.)

What struck me about these presenters was how enthusiastic – truly enthusiastic – they are about their work.

If you’re a technology nerd, you might be interested in some of the talks presented at this meeting by recipients of grants from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. I was especially intrigued by these three: “Seismic exploration of small bodies,” “Cubesat with nanostructured sensing instrumentation,” and “Triton hopper: exploring Neptune’s captured Kuiper Belt object.” (I could actually understand the concepts – at least while I was listening to the talks….)

When I hear about ideas such as these for further solar system exploration, I feel as though the future of scientific space exploration will be rich. Then I remember that NASA’s planetary science mission budget is, and will very likely remain, limited. And I recall that a significant majority of NASA’s budget goes to human space flight projects. And I wonder, again, whether human space flight is worth it. In a recent presentation on NASA’s space technology roadmapping activity, I overheard the observation that it would be a lot easier to fill in the gaps in these roadmaps if human space flight requirements were off the table.