Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. As part of that, it seeks to understand the origin of the building blocks of life, how these building blocks combine to create life, how life affects and is affected by the environment from which it arose, and finally, whether and how life expands beyond its planet of origin.
It requires studying fundamental concepts of life and habitable environments that will help us to recognize biospheres that might be quite different from our own. This includes studying the limits of life, life’s phylogeny and effects of the space environment on living systems. Such fundamental questions require long-term stable funding for the science community, and that means keeping the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the grants programs funded at healthy levels. The 50 percent cut in NASA’s 2007 budget for astrobiology would be devastating.
The search for potentially inhabited planets beyond our solar system includes laboratory and field investigations of the origins and early evolution of life, and studies of the potential of life to adapt to future challenges, both on Earth and in space. As such, astrobiology has never been, nor should it ever be, uniquely tied to a Mars sample return mission or human exploration of Mars. The broad interdisciplinary character of astrobiology compels us to strive for the most comprehensive and inclusive understanding of biological, planetary and cosmic phenomena.
NASA essentially developed astrobiology as a whole new interdisciplinary scientific field from scratch. It now has thousands of researchers, many international affiliates and multiple peer reviewed journals, and the field is growing. Even the National Science Foundation has been amazed by what NASA’s astrobiology program has accomplished. Abandoning this field now would undermine some of the most exciting science NASA has going.
The primary reasons NASA developed astrobiology was to impact all of NASA’s missions including Earth science, astrophysics and solar system exploration. (It is worth noting that Mars is just one example of solar system exploration.)
Human exploration was always known to be an activity that would occur in the far distant future. Mars missions are not going away. The queue that exists continues to grow. A new Mars Scout mission Announcement of Opportunity is about to be released. Only by funding the science and instrument programs will future principal investigators be able to truly look for the “fingerprints of life.”
To address the specific points of impact on missions, we have only just arrived at the point where instruments aimed at understanding the fingerprints of life now are being built for the Mars Science Laboratory. It takes about eight years to really impact a mission cycle. The proposed cutbacks now in the instrument and experiments programs would terminate the effort just as we are starting to make real progress.
Astrobiology sets an agenda for inspiring the next generation of planetary explorers and stewards to sustain the NASA vision and mission. Astrobiology has generated orders of magnitude more results, visibility and, above all, more sources of education to the young than any space science discipline ever before. If the cuts that have been proposed so far in the 2007 NASA budget request come to pass, the results will be devastating.
The consequences will include:
The loss of cutting-edge science and the loss of the U.S. leadership while other countries are increasing their research grants in related domains and broadening their programs.
The loss of hundreds of scientists who will be left without funding, the same scientists who are currently world leaders in their research areas and are making headlines worldwide today, as they have been at an increasing pace over the past 10 years because of the quality and results of their research.
The loss of an entire generation of young researchers who just defended their doctorate thesis in astrobiology-related subjects and will have nowhere to go. The United States has invested millions of dollars in the formation of this young and strong elite to ensure the future of U.S. leadership in space sciences. Not taking advantage of that investment would be a terrible waste.
Everyone has a stake in astrobiology. Destroying astrobiology will be a national disaster to an extent that the United States is unlikely to recover from it. It will have enduring consequences on the country’s science leadership in the world. The astrobiology budget cuts will destroy the foundation of this leadership by annihilating an entire generation of researchers, their research and the new generation they were forming.
Rocco Mancinelli is a principal investigator at the SETI (Search for Extra terrestrial Intelligence) Institute.