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Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded


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O NASA! My NASA!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Shuttle mission STS-118 (NASA)

This is not exactly the normal kind of post on Life, Unbounded, but there’s good reason for it.

Our species of peculiarly upright, lurching, yabbering, fidgeting, opposing thumb creatures has managed to claw its way through time to arrive at a very special point. During the past fifty years we’ve become organisms with the capacity to deliberately leave our entire biosphere behind – the very planet whose intertwined bio-geophysical evolution across almost 4 billion years has produced us. We’ve not only placed members of our species into the great void of the cosmos, we’ve sent our robotic avatars across the solar system to scout and report back. We’ve also built great observatories in space that have extended our vision to both the most extreme environments of the universe and to the very earliest years of our budding cosmos, long before this tiny planet formed around a nondescript star on the outer edges of an ordinary spiral galaxy.

Only the most cynical and miserable of individuals would consider this to be a waste of human resources. Yes, we have many, many problems here on terra firma, and huge gulfs of inequality exist between our peoples. But hope springs eternal, it is part of what makes us human, and the hope of knowledge, exploration, and the cosmic unknown is surely as critical piece of our slender existence as is the desire to resolve our day-to-day problems. It is also very evident that the resolution to many of our issues as a swarming infestation on this world will come from scientific and technological innovation as much as from social engineering and cultural understanding. Such innovation does not take place in an intellectual vacuum, and extending our reach to the waiting cosmos a mere sixty miles above us is a key piece of this.

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Space Shuttle Atlantis completes its 33rd flight into Earth orbit we really are witnessing a critical moment in human history. It is not that humans will suddenly become bereft of a way to place people or machines into space, but it marks a point of vital importance for one of the two most successful space programs in the world (the other being of course the Russian, formerly Soviet, effort).

NASA must now develop its next generation of lift-vehicles, but it is faced with both the political bean-counting of a nation reeling from economic disaster, and a rather serious lack of clarity from its leadership (yes, you White House. At the last announcement of a vision for the space program from your hallowed halls a colleague told me that it was “a lawyers vision of science and exploration that completely avoided saying anything meaningful or genuinely useful, while sounding supportive in a vague and non-prosecutable way”). At this same moment key missions are coming under attack in an awful game of cat and mouse. At the forefront is the very real possibility of an undercutting, if not outright cancellation, of the flagship James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s deeply frustrating and saddening. More so because there is a side to NASA that I think is in general very unappreciated. There are really two arms to the space administration – although they are intimately connected – one is of course that devoted to launch, flight, and human exploration. The other is devoted to science. And what a devotion it is. I can hardly do it justice, but in fifty years NASA has opened our eyes to the nature of the Earth and the Sun, sent multiple robotic emissaries to all the major planets, and some onwards to the stars themselves. It has constructed the greatest astronomical instruments in human history, from the Hubble Telescope to the Chandra, Spitzer, Compton, and Fermi observatories, as well as dozens upon dozens of “smaller” missions. Most recently a modestly sized space-telescope called Kepler has identified over 1,400 likely planetary candidates around other stars, and is on track to discover worlds that match the Earth in size and orbital configuration – a step nearer to the dream of locating other places that could harbor life in the universe.

If that were not enough, NASA is also a prolific and incredibly egalitarian supporter of raw scientific research, from the physical sciences to biology. It does this through a remarkable array of grant-giving programs, all tightly integrated with its mission science. Although a small drop in terms of budgets these programs help support an army of researchers across the United States, from undergraduate to graduate students, postdocs to professors. They also come with a strong edict that scientists engage with the public, and with education across all ages. As a result then over the years NASA’s funding has become a critical piece of the scientific productivity of the United States.

As a scientist who’s work has benefited enormously from NASA’s support I have also been constantly awed by the aggregate results of this approach. NASA’s science programs encourage, even insist, on openness – work gets published, and pushed out for all to see. Something as simple as a policy of making all imagery, whether of a Gulf hurricane or a valley on Mars, part of the public domain has an incredible cascading effect. Suddenly a child with internet access, wherever they are, can see with their own eyes the same things that we privileged scientists get to see, and they can use these images like friendly and familiar objects. A nebula becomes a screensaver and a young mind is forever opened to the beauty of the universe.

So, as Atlantis finishes its job, leaving the cold void behind once and for all, I cannot help but hold my breath. We simply cannot afford to assume NASA is just another government program, another place to trim and smother with ill-conceived political visions. Yes, it has its share of entrenchment, mismanagement, missteps, and failures. But it is so much more than that; just a little way beneath the surface is a collective of human intellect, ingenuity, and passion that truly serves us all.

Despite this moment of tension I am optimistic. There is a genuine undercurrent of change in the space business. The surprising and wonderful successes of upstarts like Space-X are going to open up a whole new set of opportunities (apart from the gossip-worthy possibility of the first trillionaires). And NASA is still very much in the thick of scientific exploration, from the new Mars rover to its ongoing and on-the-way missions like the New Horizons probe to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt – more than 3 billion miles away. I don’t think it’s crazy to hope that the best is yet to come. With our support we can make sure that Atlantis lands, and does not sink.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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