House Committee Holds Upbeat Hearing on NASA’s Astrobiology Program

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Publication date: 
8 October 2015
Number: 
128

“A most enjoyable hearing” was how House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) characterized a hearing titled “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade.”  Smith was not alone, with another committee member saying that the testimony of the four witnesses had “really been wonderful.”

In contrast to most congressional hearings, there was little or no dissension on either side of the witness table during the 100 minute session.  Appearing before the committee were Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist at NASA; Jonathan Lunine, Professor and Director of Cornell University’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research; Jacob Bean, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago; and Andrew Siemion, Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.   

NASA describes the Astrobiology program as “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”  There are seven major components in this program.  A committee staff  document notes that the program’s funding increased from $46.1 million in FY 2014 to $57.5 million in FY 2015.  The Obama Administration requested an increase to $59.7 million in this new fiscal year.  NASA explains “The Astrobiology Program is managed by the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. . . .  The Astrobiology Program is closely coordinated with NASA’s Mars Exploration and Planetary Protection Programs.”

Several points were stressed by the witnesses.  Among the most important was the interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research encompassing other NASA programs such as Heliophysics.  Also emphasized was how much additional research, and development of new technologies and instrumentation, will be required to find evidence of life in or outside our Solar System.  This research encompasses difficult questions such as the ability to differentiate between a habitable environment and the existence of actual life forms, the detection of life forms dissimilar to those found on Earth, and the need to prevent cross contamination between the Earth and other bodies.  Also discussed was the way in which astrobiology could provide insight into the evolution of life on Earth. 

During the September 29 hearing reference was made to a forthcoming NASA astrobiology road map.   Delayed for a year because of rapid changes in the field, this road map was just released by a diverse team of authors and Lindsay Hays of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as Editor-in-Chief.  Titled “Astrobiology Strategy,”the 250 page document explains:

“In preparing this new science strategy, hundreds of members of the astrobiology community collaborated in an intensive process of defining goals and objectives for astrobiology research moving forward. The community identified six major topics of research in the field today:
• Identifying abiotic sources of organic compounds
• Synthesis and function of macromolecules in the origin of life
• Early life and increasing complexity
• Co-evolution of life and the physical environment
• Identifying, exploring, and characterizing environments for habitability andbiosignatures
• Constructing habitable worlds”

Each of these questions is discussed in separate chapters.  A concluding chapter, “Challenges and Opportunities in Astrobiology,” offers a series of profound “Key Research Questions.”  Notes the report about this research:

“It . . . requires us to breach traditional boundaries between the physical sciences and other areas of human inquiry such as history, theology, philosophy, and linguistics. With each of these challenges lies the opportunity for the field to advance our ability to conduct research as a highly interactive community and for astrobiology to become an example for other fields facing similar challenges.”

The hearing clearly demonstrated the bipartisan enthusiasm for astrobiology research.  Commented one committee member: “this gives me the goose bumps.”