Commentary: Destroying Astrobiology Would be a ‘Disaster’

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.  This means keeping the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the grants programs funded at healthy levels.

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, multiple peer reviewed journals and is growing.  Even NSF 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 (planetary ecology), astrophysics (Kepler is a perfect example), and solar system exploration (Mars is just one example).  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 are now being built for the Mars Science Laboratory (e.g., Raman and XRD).  It takes about eight years to really impact a mission cycle.  The proposed cutbacks now in the instrument and experiments programs (ASTID and ASTEP) 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 come to pass, it will be devastating.  Consequences will include:

  • The loss of cutting-edge science and the loss of the US leadership while, in comparison, Europe and 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 Ph.D. thesis in astrobiology-related subjects and will have nowhere to go.  The US has invested millions of dollars in the formation of this young and strong elite to ensure the future of the US leadership in space sciences. 

This will be a total 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.

COMMENTARY: Astrobiology Budget in Peril

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