More on the search for signs of extraterrestrial life

Unknown

Credit: huffingtonpost.com

Yesterday I reported on a workshop held a few months ago on how to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Today I’ll report on some other workshops and meetings in recent months that have addressed the same topic, one way or another. The National Academies’ Space Studies Board Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) received briefings on these activities yesterday.

The gist of yesterday’s discussions is that as time goes on, planetary exploration (inside and outside our solar system) is becoming more and more focused on looking for habitable environments and signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that we know everything we need to know about planets in our solar system and in other star systems – but it looks like the search for ET life is what will be driving planetary exploration over the next several decades (or more).

Steve Mackwell, corporate director of science programs for the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), reported to CAPS on a “Planetary Science Vision 2050” workshop held at NASA headquarters last month. “Where do we come from? Are we alone, are we unusual? Where are we going” were the threads that knit together discussions at the workshop, Mackwell said.

“Life” turned out to be a major theme of the workshop, he said – to such an extent that it “is an understatement” to say that some members of the planetary science community are concerned that a disproportionate amount of NASA’s science funding – both for missions and for research and analysis – could be devoted to the search for ET life.

Amy Simon, a senior scientist in the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, briefed CAPS on NASA’s Ice Giant Mission Science Definition Team activities. This group has been studying concepts for missions to Uranus and Neptune.

These two ice giants are largely unexplored. (NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986 and by Neptune in 1989.) They are not only different from the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn but also different from each other. The SDT agrees that “both are equally important” to study, Simon said. “Ideally you’d do a mission to both,” but the cost of such a mission would be high.

(NASA’s already planning an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (Europa Clipper, and NASA’s Europa Lander Science Definition Team issued its report last month.)

Jim Kasting reported on the Space Studies Board’s workshop on “searching for life across space and time,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post.

Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, told CAPS about a proposed SSB follow-on study of the search for life in the universe: “astrobiology science strategy and the current state of extraterrestrial life detection.”

Voytek explained that the fiscal year 2017 NASA authorization bill, signed into law last week, directs NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to:

  • Task the National Academies with developing a strategy for the study and exploration of extrasolar planets and delivering it to Congress by September 2018 (Section 508).
  • Report to Congress by September 2017 on how NASA plans to expand public-private partnerships in astrobiology (Section 510).
  • Task the National Academies with developing a science strategy for astrobiology and delivering it to Congress by September 2018 (Section 509).
    • NASA’s charge to the National Academies for this latter project reads: “In preparation for the upcoming decadal surveys in astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science, the National Academy of Sciences will appoint an ad hoc committee to carry out a study of the state of the science of astrobiology as it relates to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems.”
    • This study will “outline key scientific and technology challenges in astrobiology particularly as they pertain to the search for life in the Solar System and extrasolar planetary systems; should accommodate the overlap with the Exoplanet Exploration study in the area of assessing habitability and search for signs of life; identify the most promising research goals in the field of life detection in which progress is likely in the next 20 years; consider the role of…partnerships in furthering the to study life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe [and how to expand partnerships]; indicate the extent to which U.S. and international missions and telescopes in operation or in development address the key research goals; and make recommendations on the above as appropriate.”
      • (LB note: IMHO this is a huge task to accomplish in 18 months. Good luck!)
      • (Another note: In 2001, the SSB issued a report on a 2000 workshop on life detection techniques. In 2002, it published a report on its examination of U.S. and international programs in astrobiology. In 2005, it published a report on the astrophysical context for life. You can find these reports here. With so much progress made in these areas over the past 10-15 years, it’s time for some updates.)

The NASA astrobiology program published a science strategy in 2015, developed in consultation with about 800 members of the science community. As noted in the charge detailed above, the new National Academies strategy will build on the 2015 strategy. It also will take into consideration the results of several other workshops and initiatives:

  • An exoplanet biosignatures workshop held in July 2016.
  • A meeting hosted at NASA headquarters September 7-9, 2016, “Agnostic biosignatures: recognizing life as we don’t know it.”
  • A workshop hosted by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, September 12-14, 2016, “Biosignatures of extant life on ocean worlds.”
  • The SSB’s December workshop, “Searching for life across space and time.”
  • The Europa Lander Science Definition Team report published last month.
  • The NASA Ocean Worlds Exploration Roadmap, developed by NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (forthcoming this year).
  • NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative, established in 2015.

The timeline for producing the new astrobiology strategy , Voytek said, is:

  • April – June 2017 – Engagement with National Academies, negotiation of study terms, establishment of contract.
  • June 2017 – June 2018 – conduct of Astrobiology Strategy Study.
  • June – September 2018 – draft study report, peer review as deemed appropriate, submission of report to NASA.
  • September 2018 – NASA submits report to Congress.

When I think about all the work going on in the planetary science community, the same thoughts run through my mind: so much talent, so many good ideas, so many science questions to answer, so limited the budget. (And today I’m thinking that the humongous addition proposed by the White House this year to the already-super-humongous Defense Department budget could fund a Europa lander, a Uranus orbiter-probe, a Neptune orbiter-probe, a space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, a mission to Venus, a Mars sample return mission including ground-based sample return facility, and then some. Sigh.)

In closing, I’d like to mention a new book written by two genius scientists, D. Eric Smith, a member of the faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and biologist Harold J. Morowitz (b. 1927-d. 2016): The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

According to Amazon: “Uniting the conceptual foundations of the physical sciences and biology, this groundbreaking multidisciplinary book explores the origin of life as a planetary process. Combining geology, geochemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, evolution and statistical physics to create an inclusive picture of the living state, the authors develop the argument that the emergence of life was a necessary cascade of non-equilibrium phase transitions that opened new channels for chemical energy flow on Earth. This…book…provides a well-ordered and accessible introduction to multiple literatures outside the confines of disciplinary specializations, as well as including an extensive bibliography to provide context and further reading. For researchers, professionals entering the field or specialists looking for a coherent overview, this text brings together diverse perspectives to form a unified picture of the origin of life and the ongoing organization of the biosphere.”

I’m familiar enough with the work of the authors to say that they’re both deep thinkers – philosophers of biology, in a way. “The fourth geosphere” is the biosphere. I haven’t read the book yet, but just reading the table of contents gives me an idea of the “deepness” of this book. They write of life as a planetary process, the many forms of order that are fundamental in Earth’s biosphere today, the scales of living processes, the cascade of disequilibria in which stellar and planetary systems operate…and so on…. (You can read the TOC, preface, and epilogue on amazon.com.)

Here’s a little sample from their preface:

“For human minds in society, professional disciplines have been the portals to expertise, but the emergency of the biosphere was not a respecter of human silos. Few readers who have spent a lifetime becoming experts in geochemistry, biochemistry, or microbiology will have happened across the fact that the theory of robustness in non-equilibrium systems continues seamlessly to the mathematics of asymptotically optimal error correction. Yet this continuity must have been fundamental to the emergence of hierarchical architecture capable of memory and control over metabolism on the route from minerals to cells.”

Some of us in the astrobiology community like to describe astrobiology as a transdisciplinary field, on beyond inter- or multi-disciplinary, in a sense. As Smith and Morowitz are suggesting, the origin (or origins) and nature of life on Earth are so complex that they cannot be grasped within the boundaries of disciplinary research. For astrobiologists and those who are (like me) deeply interested in it, this book is likely a must-read.

 

 

The search for signs of life beyond Earth: gaining ground

pbs.org

Credit: pbs.org

This morning, the National Academies’ Space Studies Board Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science is receiving a briefing on a workshop last December on searching for life across space and time. I wrote a report on the workshop for posting on nasa.gov. It has not been published, so I’m posting it here, with a few updates.

In recent years, NASA planetary missions have identified a growing number of potentially habitable environments in our solar system – planetary bodies that have, or could have, liquid water: Mars, Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan…. NASA’s New Horizons mission gathered evidence that even the dwarf planet Pluto might have a subsurface liquid water ocean. Looking for signs of habitability and life on these bodies, and on planets in other star systems, is now a major focus of NASA’s planetary exploration program.

One of the hottest prospects in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life in our solar system is Europa, which has a global subsurface liquid water ocean that could be heated by volcanic or hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor.

Last year, responding to congressional direction, NASA established an Ocean Worlds Exploration Program including orbiter and lander missions to the Jovian moon. Planning for a NASA orbiter mission to Europa is already under way. In June, NASA appointed a science definition team (SDT) to identify scientific goals and objectives for a Europa lander mission.

Last month the SDT delivered its report to NASA, identifying three primary goals for this mission, in order of priority: 1) Search for evidence of life on Europa, 2) Assess the habitability of Europa via in situ techniques uniquely available to a landed mission, and 3) Characterize surface and subsurface properties at the scale of the lander to support future exploration. (Two town-hall meetings scheduled this spring – March 19 at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas; and April 23 at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Mesa, Arizona – will provide scientists with an opportunity to comment on this report.)

Given growing interest, inside and outside NASA, in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, last year NASA’s Science Mission Directorate tasked the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science with organizing an expert dialogue on “searching for life across space and time.” This dialogue took place in California in December.

“The search for evidence of extraterrestrial life in our solar system and beyond is shifting into high gear. Before we decide where to look for it, we have to pin down what we’re looking for and how we’re going to look for it,” said Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology. “It’s been 15 years since the Academies last reviewed and synthesized the relevant issues in our quest for evidence of extraterrestrial life. The forthcoming report on last month’s workshop will synthesize our current understanding of the limits of life and life’s interactions with planetary environments, as well as of our capabilities to extend this understanding,” said Voytek, who participated in the workshop.

In addition to places, the “time” factor is important to address. As then-NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan noted at the workshop, “A habitable zone is not just a place, it’s a time.”

The aim of the gathering, said workshop chair James Kasting of Pennsylvania State University, was not to produce a consensus or formal recommendations but to gather key people in planetary exploration and exoplanet studies to share ideas.

Questions that drove the dialogue were:

  • What is our current understanding of the limits of life and life’s interactions with the environments of planets and moons?
  • Are we today positioned to design, build and conduct experiments or observations capable of life detection remotely or in situ in our own solar system and from afar on extrasolar worlds?
  • How could targeted research help advance the state of the art for life detection, including instrumentation and precursor research, to successfully address these challenges?

Experts at the workshop considered what exactly “life” is. Is Earth life – life as we know it – the only kind of life that planetary conditions can engender? What does life require? How do life and its environments co-evolve? What does a planetary environment have that life needs? How does life use what its environment has, and how does that use change the environment?

For instance, “are plate tectonics and hydrothermal systems essential to the origin of life?” asked astrobiologist John Baross of the University of Washington. “I would say yes.”

Indications are that astrobiologists are well on the way to life detection in terms of both knowledge and know-how but need more of both.

“The reality is that astrobiology is looking for Earth-like life,” Baross observed. But we also need to be ready for a “surprise,” he said.

As to the search for fossil evidence of past life on Mars, Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, former project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, said, “Silica is the great material on Earth that survives everything.” So on Mars, we should be looking to silica deposits for possible evidence.

If astrobiologists ever do find evidence of past life on Mars, given that so much material has been exchanged between Earth and Mars over billions of years (in the form of meteorites), then they will have to determine whether it originated independently of Earth life or whether it’s related to Earth life.

The ocean worlds of our solar system – Europa, Titan, Enceladus, Triton, Ganymede, Callisto, and now Pluto – have subsurface liquid water oceans today, said Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrobiologist Kevin Hand. These ocean worlds offer “the prospect of extant life living in an environment that has not been exposed to Earth (or Martian) life.” Europa’s ocean “has been there for most of the history of the solar system.” In Hand’s judgment, “ocean worlds are possibly the best place to search for extant life” of an independent origin.

As to searching for signs of habitability and life beyond our solar system, exoplanet expert Vikki Meadows of the University of Washington said some important questions to address are, “How could we recognize the effects of life on an extrasolar planet? How do we discriminate life processes from the surrounding environment?” How do we determine false positives and false negatives?” For example, it’s not enough to detect oxygen in an atmosphere. We need to be able to distinguish between biotically and abiotically generated oxygen.

Breakout groups at the workshop addressed these questions: How could targeted research over the next 5-10 years help advance the state of the art for life detection, including instrumentation and precursor research? What do astrobiologists already know and have, and what they need, to work on in-situ detection of life as we know it, in-situ detection of life as we don’t know it (a.k.a. “weird life”), remote detection of life as we know it, and remote detection of life as we don’t know it? Good ideas abounded….

How will these good ideas be translated into good science? NASA Astrobiology has a science strategy in place to guide research over the next decade, and astrobiologists have troves of data to work with from past and current planetary missions. NASA’s Cassini mission to the Saturn system – coming to an end soon, after 12 years of operations – discovered erupting geysers and a global subsurface ocean on Enceladus and revealed Titan as a world with hydrocarbon rain, rivers, lakes and seasons. NASA now has a fleet of spacecraft operating at Mars: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, MSL, MAVEN, Mars Odyssey. NASA’s Juno spacecraft is at the Jupiter system, and planning is under way for a dedicated mission to Europa. NASA’s Ocean Worlds Program will work on the best ways to look for evidence of habitability and life on those bodies. At the same time, NASA’s NEXSS project – the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science – is bringing astrobiologists and astrophysicists together in a research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The search for signs of life is definitely on….

Space tourism: still a romp for the self-indulgent

unknown

Credit: youtube.com

Yesterday, SpaceX announced that it plans to send two tourists on a trip around the Moon in 2018.

I’ll believe it when I see it. As other commentators have noted, sending people into space is complicated…. Nonetheless, the main message from the mass media is that this is going to happen.

Elon Musk – net worth #13 billion, according to Forbes – and his PR machine are masters at the art of garnering free publicity – no expensive ads placed on TV or in major newspapers (a la Boeing and Lockheed Martin), just a media event – and, voila, headlines on CNN, BBC News, NPR, USA Today, CBS News, etc. etc. etc. (A simple search on Google News this morning yielded 317,000 hits.)

It disturbs me that the media continue to lionize ultra-rich people for their self-indulgent efforts to entertain themselves. (Mar-a-Lago, anyone?)

The web news site Inverse reports that a ticket for this lunar romp will cost $35 million. (Inverse’s write-up of yesterday’s announcement is one of the better-balanced reports I’ve read.)

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2017 “poverty guideline” for a family of four is a household income of $24,600 a year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, 43 million people in our great nation were living below the poverty level.

If both SpaceX moon passengers were to pass on their lunar joyrides and instead decide to make $50,000 grants to families living below the poverty level, they could give 1,400 of these families a shot at trying to get out of poverty (I know, I know, it takes more than cash to break out of poverty, but this could be a start). Or they could put $70 million into job training. Or they could make $100,000 grants to 700 students living below the poverty level to cover four years of college education.

This sort of thing is not my area of expertise – I’m not that kind of social scientist. But my point is that $70 million could be put to better use than adventure travel.

In 2006, I published a commentary in the journal Space Policy under the title, “Exploration for the masses? Or joyrides for the ultra-rich? Prospects for space tourism”:

“A space tourism industry appears to be about to take off. Businesses have announced plans to launch people into suborbital space for $200,000/person, with flights beginning as early as 2008. A brief review of the history of the idea of space tourism over the past four decades—and an awareness that many ventures have quietly shelved their grandiose plans—might aid thinking about the prospects for

development of a safe and thriving space tourism industry. Today’s space tourism model emphases the concept of luxury, and the lifestyle of hyper-consumption. It may be worth considering whether and how this conception of space tourism might affect the future of space exploration.”

This paper obviously needs updating (I‘ve posted it on this site), but I stand by my conclusion:

“As spacefaring nations extend human presence into space, they can take with them values and habits that have not served people especially well on Earth. Or they can

begin to consider what a spacefaring civilization might, could, or should look like in this new millennium. It is time for the global space community to initiate a broad public dialog about what sort of future in space all people want.”

 

Can we save ourselves?

unknown

Credit: YouTube.com

Here in Washington, the past few days have been rough for bleeding hearts like me. I don’t want to blog (much) about the current political environment, so I’ve found something more uplifting to write about.

In preparation for a move later this year, I’ve been sorting through my voluminous collection of space-related reports, and I’ve come across a report on a 1990 Eisenhower Centennial Space Roundtable held in D.C. My friend Theresa Foley, then a journalist, served as moderator (she was the only non-white-male speaker on the agenda).

I’ve enjoyed re-reading the keynote address at this event, given by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh (b. 1917-d. 2015), a Catholic priest and then president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, so I thought I’d write a few words (mostly his) about it.

Hesburgh was “a powerful moral voice in national affairs,” according to the New York Times. He served on 16 presidential commissions in Democratic and Republican administrations. President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Science Board in 1954. I recall that Father Hesburgh had a lively interest in the space program. For a time he was a member of The Planetary Society’s Advisory Council.

In his 1990 address, Hesburgh said that when President Eisenhower asked him to join the National Science Board, he told the President that he must have mixed him up with someone else. Eisenhower told him, “No, I want to have a philosophical and theological point of view represented on the…Board.” (This is, by the way, what NASA’s astrobiology program is attempting to provide to the community of scientists whose work it funds and to the broader audience that is interested in the work – see my blog post of last June on the subject.) With the beginning of the so-called Space Age in the 1950s, Hesburgh said, he became a “space buff.”

Observing that the 20th century accomplishments of the U.S. and Soviet space programs “were in large measure spurred on by the military challenges and national pride born of the Cold War,” he asserted that “the most difficult political and philosophical question facing us [in 1990] is this: absent the Cold War and the overhanging threat of mutually assured destruction, will the potential benefits to humankind everywhere continue to drive space exploration…?”

“I take as our most compelling symbol” pictures of Earth taken from space, he said. What do these images “say to us?” First, they show no differences or divisions among nations or people. “Is not this vision laden with other philosophical and theological implications: that, like Planet Earth, humankind is one and potentially more beautiful than our past history has indicated; that we survive together or we perish together in this unitary habitat, sharing the same hospitable climate, the air, the water, the land, and, more significantly, those spiritual yearnings for knowledge, freedom, peace, development, a civilization marked by justice, not the wars that injustice spawns?”

“The challenge here,” he said, “is to create a human spiritual unity of understanding and a justice that matches the physical beauty of this planet that is a pure gift to us, and to use it together and not to abuse it separately.”

“Space exploration arrived in time to underline for all Earth’s inhabitants in stark detail what we are now doing, largely due to our profligate use of…hydrocarbon fuels, to destroy, possibly irreversibly, most of these unearned blessings unique to our Planet Earth.”

Seeing a beautiful Earth from space “invites us to dream about ways that we inhabitants of this habitat…might truly become united in human development. To use a space metaphor, reduce the five billion plus people on Earth…to five persons, astronauts traveling in a spaceship. Imagine that one of them, representing us in the developing world (here, Europe, Japan) had possession of 80% of the life resources aboard the spacecraft, and that the other four astronauts had to share the 20% of the resources left…. It’s difficult to conceive of this as a situation promoting peace and justice, but this is precisely the situation in our world today.”

It’s a powerful picture that Hesburgh painted. While the boundaries of the “developed” world may have changed since 1990, it is still the case that a few wealthy nations consume a significant majority of global resources. Even in this great nation, the U.S. of A., the rich continue to get richer while the poor get poorer, a trend that I expect could get worse in the near future.

I share Hesburgh’s view of the potential for humankind to live in peace – whether a sufficient number of leaders in government and industry worldwide do, or will, embrace this view remains to be seen. So far, I’ve heard a lot more talk (for instance, at this year’s World Economic Forum) and seen not enough action. I myself will continue to agitate for action.

 

National strategy for asteroid impact preparedness

images

Meteor Crater, Arizona

Credit: techtimes.com

On December 30, 2016, the White House released its new “National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy,” a document that assigns roles and responsibilities across the federal government for finding and tracking near-Earth objects, identifying potentially hazardous objects, and preparing for response in the event that a near-Earth object is found to be on a certain impact course with Earth.

To my eyes, this strategy is a follow-through to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Holdren’s 2010 letter to Congress outlining a framework for handling these tasks.

Holdren was responding to congressional direction in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (Section 804) directing OSTP to “develop a policy for notifying Federal agencies and relevant interagency response institutions of an impending near-Earth object threat…and…recommend a Federal agency or agencies to be responsible for protecting the U.S. from NEO impacts ad implementing a NEO detection campaign “should one be necessary.”

In his 2010 letter, Holdren said NASA – specifically, its NEO Observations Program – which now operates as a major element of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), established just a year ago – would be responsible for finding and tracking NEOs and working on impact mitigation or deflection options, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be responsible for emergency response.

Since then, the two agencies have worked together on a number of initiatives, including four joint “tabletop exercises” simulating asteroid impact events, in April 2013, May 2014, October 2016, and December 2016. Both agencies participate in the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (NEOS) (DAMIEN). Organized by OSTP, DAMIEN is the group that produced the 2016 national NEO Preparedness strategy.

(Disclosure: My work is funded in part by NASA’s PDCO. I have not been directly involved in the DAMIEN group. No one asked me to write this blog – it’s an “FYI” post.)

You can find presentations by DAMIEN principals Alvin Drew/OSTP, Lindley Johnson/PDCO, Leviticus Lewis/FEMA, and Bhavya Lal/Science and Technology Policy Institute (a sort of “think tank” for OSTP) to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 20, 2016, on the OSTP web site.

Is the establishment of this national strategy big news? Probably not – unless you work in the NEO or emergency response community. The strategy puts NEO detection/planetary defense on the official White House “map,” as it were, and codifies work already in progress.

Should we trust our government to do the right thing if and when the time comes? According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press – which I consider to be a reliable source of information – a majority of U.S. respondents to a 2016 poll said they have “a great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the military, medical scientists, and scientists “to act in the best interests in the public.” However, in a 2015 poll, Pew researchers found that “just 19%” of respondents said they trust the government “always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century.”

Who knows what this new year will bring?

Science, religion, and space exploration

unknown

Credit: entropymag.org

Today I’m going to blog about a blog post that I find very interesting. It’s about one of my favorite subjects: science and religion.

Mark M. Gray is editor of a research blog for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).* On December 2, he wrote about the results of a public opinion survey conducted for CARA by the polling firm GfK Custom Research.

Respondents (about 2,000 adults in the U.S.) were asked:

1) “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically, or something in God’s hands and therefore unpredictable?”

2) “Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?”

3) “How important, if at all, do you believe human exploration of space will be in the future?”

As to question #1, I wonder whether people would have responded differently if they were asked, “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically, or something that is unpredictable?”

In any case, Gray reports that more than six in ten respondents said they believe Earth’s future “is in God’s hands.” He also noted “a big divide in opinion between Christians and those of other religious affiliations or no affiliation.” Six percent of evangelical Christians, 34 percent of Catholics, and 82 percent of those with no religious affiliation said they believe Earth’s end is something science can understand and predict.

As to question #2, it came with some background: ““Scientists believe that in 4.5 billion years the Sun’s lifecycle will come to an end. Much earlier, in about 1 billion years, the sun will have become hotter and increased Earth’s temperature beyond a level where life, as we know it, is possible. Therefore, the long-term survival of humans may depend on space exploration and colonization. Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?”

Also in regard to question #2, I will note my concern about the use of the term “destiny,” which is itself a religious concept. (See my March 2015 post on the subject.)

That said, Gray reports that 28 percent of respondents said they believe human destiny is on Earth, 27 percent said it’s in space, and 45 percent said they don’t know.

Given that, IMHO, survey results are, at best, indicators (not measures) of public opinion, the results of this survey, for those who place weight on such things, don’t provide any evidence that the U.S. citizenry is in favor of the human colonization of space.

On question #3, Gray reports that 70 percent of respondents said they believe human exploration of space will be “very” or “somewhat” important. As to how and why those respondents believe it’s important, that’s beyond the bounds of the survey.

(I’m somehow reminded of a stunning novel I read a year or so ago, The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber, in which a terrestrial corporation interested in developing an extrasolar planet recruits an English clergyman to develop relations with that planet’s indigenous people, who have mysteriously embraced the Christian Bible as a ”book of strange new things.” I recommend it….)

I’ve also recently come across a reference to research conducted by University of Dayton political scientist Joshua Ambrosius into “religious influences on public support for U.S. space exploration policy.” Ambrosius found that evangelical Protestants in the United States “are the least supportive of space policy.” According to a university press release about this project, Ambrosius found that “Evangelicals, who account for one-quarter of the U.S. population, are the least knowledgeable, interested and supportive of space exploration, while Jews and members of Eastern traditions were most attentive and supportive…. Among Catholics, there is more openness to space exploration.” (His findings about Catholics and evangelicals pretty much agree with the CARA survey results.)

Meanwhile, the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) is midway through its second and final year of inquiry into the possible societal impacts of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. For more information on this project, see CTI’s web site and this blog post.

Happy New Year to all, and keep thinking!

*For those of you who are, like me, not Catholic, according to the dictionary the Roman Catholic Church defines “apostolate” as “the dignity and office of the pope as head of the Apostolic See; the mission of bishops in their dioceses; an organization of the laity devoted to the mission of the Church.”

Journey to Mars…for the science

unknown

Credit: pinterest.com

In yesterday’s blog post I promised to provide, as a balance to my critiques of the human space flight enterprise, my “vision” of the kind of space program I wish we could have.

I’d originally planned to title this post “A progressive U.S. space policy: mission impossible?” With U.S. election results now in, it’s safe to say, yes, definitely impossible, for now.

Nonetheless, here’s what I wish the U.S. space program could be and do.

I wish we could have a science-and-applications focused civilian space program.

Let’s continue our journey to Mars – robotically.

Let’s put human exploration beyond Earth orbit on hold – at least for the next 30 years, maybe longer.

Why?

Despite the many robotic flyby/orbit/land/rove missions that NASA and other space agencies have sent to Mars, despite the overwhelmingly vast quantities of data gathered on the planet, we still don’t know enough about Mars to determine whether it ever was, or still is, habitable.

A major step toward answering the habitability question is a Mars sample return mission. For the past 40 years – since the Viking missions were completed – a Mars sample return has been a top priority in the space science community and Mission Impossible politically. The spacefaring nations of the world have not been able, individually or collectively, to obtain funding for a Mars sample return mission. Current plans to return samples from Mars are shaky, and as yet not fully funded.

(Just this week, European Space Agency Director General Jan Woerner told the media, “I propose to go on with the ExoMars 2020 mission, but we need money for that,” specifying “several hundred millions…. I hope we will convince the member states (of ESA) that we go on with that programme…. I would be very sad if we stop the programme.”)

Meanwhile, plans for the necessary Earth-based sample containment facility – a biosafety-level-4 lab (BSL-4 is the highest level of biological containment, required for human pathogens) are just that for now – plans on paper. Planetary protection requirements for human missions to Mars is a matter that has yet to be resolved.

If we actually could put people on Mars by the 2030s – which I find highly improbable – they would likely contaminate the martian environment to the point that it might no longer be useful for astrobiological research.

And how does establishing a permanent human presence on another planetary body benefit humankind? I have yet to hear a convincing argument.

Let’s focus on science: the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life in our solar system (Mars, Enceladus, Mars, Europa, Mars, Titan…); the search for exoplanets and studies of their potential habitability; efforts to understand the universe; efforts to understand Earth.

It seems that we know so much about our home planet, solar system, planets around other stars, our galaxy, our universe. We do. Yet so many important questions remain unanswered. Let’s work on answering them.

Let’s expand human presence into space virtually. Let Oculus Rift, Samsung, Sony, VR One, and their ilk take people into space. Let NASA hold a contest to find the VR team that can provide the best “in-space” experience.

Let’s expand citizen-science programs. Make sure that citizen participation and citizen contributions are useful and meaningful to them as well as to NASA.

Let’s continue to work on making the science and technology of robotic space exploration available and useful to the broader community. Let’s help the American people get their money’s worth out of their investment in space.

And let’s continue working on the other “A” in “NASA” – aeronautics research.

As to NASA’s public affairs operations, let’s have NASA spend less time boosting its brand and more time explaining how it is meeting its statutory objectives.

Those objectives, detailed in the 1958 NASA Act, are:

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;

(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;

(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies and living organisms through space;

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;

(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;

(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;

(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results, thereof; and

(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

Since I joined the aerospace community in 1983, I’ve been witness to a parade of reports on the U.S. future in space, all advocating for establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon or on Mars or on both – here are some of them:

National Commission on Space, Pioneering the Space Frontier, 1986

NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator, 1987 (Ride report)

Space Exploration Initiative, 1989 (G.H.W. Bush)

Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars, 1989

Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, 1990 (Augustine report)

America at the Threshold – Report of the Synthesis Group on America’s Space Exploration Initiative, 1991

The Vision for Space Exploration, 2004 (G.W. Bush)

Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, 2004 (Aldridge commission)

Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, 2009 (Augustine Committee)

The Global Exploration Roadmap, 2009 (International Space Exploration Coordination Group)

What was wrong with all of these reports? Why have their plans and recommendations not been executed?

The Moon-Mars Thing – the “plan” for sending people back to the Moon and on to Mars, to stay – has inched forward so slowly over the past 30 years that it makes me wonder whether it will ever be affordable. (I do not take seriously SpaceX and Mars One claims about getting people to Mars quickly and affordably.)

Putting plans for human exploration and settlement on hold – until human societies are mature enough to avoid making the same mistakes they’ve made here on Earth (over and over again) – would enable us to ramp up development of the technologies needed to robotically explore Enceladus, Europa, and Titan (and of course continue our exploration of Mars) and employ more of those Ph.D. scientists that our society has been so successful in producing. Many NASA science programs are receiving far more qualified research proposals than budgets permit funding for – let’s beef up those budgets so all the good science gets done.

Scientific, robotic, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are complex biological systems living in a complex ecological/physical/cosmic system. This narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space turns away from conquest and exploitation and 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.

“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.” (Thanks to John Lennon for this closer.)