Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Man or astrobiology man?

Posted 12 Dec 2010 / 0

This month’s Scientific American had two interesting news stories concerning our scientific obsession with space.

The first article, entitled “Defying Politics”, discussed the schizophrenic and wavering manner in which the last two presidential administrations have worked to forge our future explorations of space by reforming NASA. Increasingly, it is clear that our manned space program is both financially untenable and hopelessly inefficient.  For years, NASA funding has been a way for members of Congress to provide kickbacks to the aerospace industries in their home districts. As a result, the manned space program is more expensive than it ought to be. This inefficiency is accompanied by an unclear mission: why we are going into space, where we are attempting to go, and the value of these trips are entirely unclear. For those of us who think that manned space travel needs to be put on hold until we can get a handle on the maintenance of our current planet, the one glimmer of hope is that recent proposals from the Obama administration have suggested that we rely on private vendors to innovate the space vehicles of the future. Unless Uncle Sam turns into Daddy Warbucks, this will be a fruitless plan. As we have seen with a lot of our large-scale public works projects, there is no way that industry can provide sufficient innovation based on profit motive alone. Whether we are talking about building highways, laying railroad track, or providing the research structure that drives biotechnology, private enterprise has always relied on public investment to make big projects successful. Here’s to the manned space program floundering on the altar of pure free enterprise!

As an aside, I should make it clear that manned space travel is only a tiny part of the overall NASA mission. In fact, NASA conducts and supports a lot of very important basic research about how Earth systems work. The irony is that NASA  under sells its real value by making manned space travel its claim to fame. Maybe remote-sensing of ecosystems worldwide is a lot less sexy than manned space travel, but it sure is a lot more important.

Only a few pages later, a second article (“Black Plants And Twilight Zones”) sings the praises of so-called astrobiologists who claim to have discovered a planet that may harbor life similar to that found on earth. Although the scientists involved cannot even agree on whether the planet actually exists, Gliese 581g is being hailed as a major candidate for extra-terrestrial life. What I always find amazing about this area of research is how its rationale is never questioned, regardless of how tenuous  and insignificant its findings turn out to be. What is our purpose in trying to seek out planets so far away that we will never be able to visit them? Is the possibility that they might contain some form of life enough? Do we hope to gain insight into how living systems work from such a distance, especially given that we have such a hard time conceptualizing the mechanisms that drive the very ecosystems in which we live? How do these scientists justify their funding? It seems like the entire field is based on public curiosity, false promises, and a legacy of science fiction.

If you are wondering why I am such a “Space Scrooge”, keep in mind that I am an ecologist. Ecology is drastically underfunded; meanwhile, we require an almost-immediate comprehensive understanding of how ecosystems work in order to preserve our place in them. If there is any 21st-century Apollo Program that we need, it is an Apollo Program aimed at understanding how we can avoid trashing our own ecosystems. If you are hoping for these feeble space exploration programs to launch you onto another habitable planet before we trash this one, you are sowing the seeds of your own extinction.

Astrobiology, Space Travel

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