NASA’s Astrobiology Origins

A new portrait of Dan Goldin was unveiled at NASA Headquarters in September 2008. Goldin was NASA’s Administrator from 1992 to 2001, and created the Astrobiology program.
Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Recently in Washington DC, a portrait was unveiled at NASA Headquarters. The painting depicts Dan Goldin, NASA’s Administrator from April 1992 to November 2001, with his hands resting on Earth, while a number of planets orbit in the background. This artistic touch alludes to the discovery of alien worlds that began in earnest during Goldin’s time in office, and links his legacy to NASA’s Astrobiology program.

When he began his tenure at NASA, Goldin says the focus of science was swinging like a pendulum from mainly physics towards including more biology. Around this time he attended an astronomical meeting in Texas. He asked the participants — scientists who were going to use telescopes to search for life in the universe — if any of them were trained in the biological sciences.

“Out of 1,500 people, only 13 hands went up,” he says. “I came back from that conference determined that we were going to have to integrate biologists with physicists.”

Because Astrobiology draws from both physics and biology (as well as other fields of science such as geology, chemistry and paleontology), Goldin thought the perfect way to achieve his goal would be to create an Astrobiology Institute. Rather than spend millions on a new building, Goldin decided the bricks for this new institution would be virtual, taking advantage of recent advances in computer technology. Investigators from across the US would meet in cyberspace. This virtual institute became the NASA Astrobiology Institute, or NAI, and the center of operations was NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

To head the Institute, Goldin selected Barry Blumberg, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Blumberg accepted NASA’s offer to fly him out to the job interview on a T-38 Talon supersonic jet, even though it meant he first had to take ejector seat training. So perhaps it required no great leap in courage for him to take on a nascent program based on what many still consider to be an untested science.

Baruch Blumberg was the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. His term of office lasted from 1999 to 2002.
Photo Credit: NASA

Blumberg says that from the start, he was impressed by Goldin’s vision for Astrobiology and the depth of his knowledge. For instance, Goldin told him that in order to develop a program to study the origin and evolution of life in the universe, scientists needed to be able to recognize life beyond the Earth. Alien life might not look like anything we would expect, so scientists would have to focus on more fundamental things, such as biomolecules and basic life processes.

“A lot of the stuff we did (at NAI) was to understand biosignatures,” says Blumberg. “The notion was that Earth and Mars were very similar in the first billion years or so. One of the last things I wanted to do was pay for missions — our total budget was less than the cost of a launch — but every project had either an existing mission or a proposed mission that it was contributing to.”

While NAI researchers had to keep missions in mind, Blumberg didn’t expect their projects to have a certain goal or to come up with specific results.

“Research is different from engineering,” says Blumberg. “When you want to get to the moon, on a clear night and you can look up and see the goal. But when you’re doing research, you don’t know what you’re going to find.”

A view of the Rio Tinto, an acidic river in Spain. Astrobiologists have been studying the weird life that lives in these caustic waters in order to understand the extreme environments life can tolerate on Earth and perhaps on other worlds.
Photo Credit: Fernando Rull Pérez

“In Astrobiology, going out and seeing things in their entirety is important,” he adds. “It’s inductive science — that is, you collect the data first, and then you make the hypotheses. Now, you always go out with some hypotheses, but you should be open to new things. We’re at the edge and the other side is unknown, so you want to expect the unknown.”

The NAI is composed of 16 teams, although the terms of their grants are staggered so some teams are on the way out just as others are being welcomed in. On October 2 of this year, the NAI announced that 10 teams had been awarded grants to conduct new research.

NASA’s Astrobiology program has grown to involve new types of research. The NAI is now just one part of a larger program that includes Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology (called Exo/Evo for short), Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP), and Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID).

Goldin says he hasn’t kept track of all these developments in the Astrobiology program since leaving the agency. However, he still is interested in the research and discoveries, and hopes his idea of integrating technology with the science will continue to drive the NASA Astrobiology program.

NASA is developing autonomous, intelligent robotic and computer systems to aid humans in future exploration missions.
Photo Credit: NASA

“In the future, there will be a wonderful set of technologies available – thin membranes that are ultra lightweight, electrostatics, adaptive intelligent systems that are based on neuroscience, aperture sizes that were previously unbelievable, locations in the cosmos where we wouldn’t have thought of putting instruments,” says Goldin. “To answer the age-old question, “Are we alone?”, Astrobiology must be integrated with the people who build the instruments. Because right now their instruments are a little bit deaf, they’re a little bit blind, and their senses of taste and smell are rudimentary.”

Blumberg agrees that developing the right instruments is important for Astrobiology, and says that in the future one of the NAI teams might be made up of engineers. Blumberg also says that even if we don’t find evidence that life exists beyond the Earth, the search is still worthwhile. Not only will we have developed new technologies to conduct this search, but we will have learned a lot about the universe in the process.

“To my mind, Astrobiology is not a failure if we don’t find life,” says Blumberg. “Astrobiology is a failure if we don’t go ahead. When you stop and think about the unfortunate things that are happening in the world right now, it’s sad. But to be dedicated to this mission to understand life in the universe makes our lives a lot richer.”