Just Gotta Poke Around

In the past few years I've been willingly sucked into the maelstrom of committees, administrators, congresspeople, scientists, engineers, lawyers, journalists, activists, and bureaucrats that is space policy. This started in 1998 when I was asked to join NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee (SSES), a group of twelve scientists that reports to the associate administrator for space sciences, providing scientific input for NASA's space exploration plans, and making policy recommendations.

Right now there is a hot new word in space policy: astrobiology. A debate is going on over whether our exploration strategy should be "biocentric." Should "the life question" be the stated rationale behind our entire exploration program? Funding for exploration always feels precarious because of the constant danger that it could be declared an unnecessary frill by the powers that be. Along with art and education, exploration is one of those activities that a society can briefly convince itself it can do without.

Some believe that astrobiology can save planetary exploration by giving our program an attractive and exciting new focus. Others feel that this strategy would be unwise. Mindful of the cyclical history of public support, and scorn, for our search for "little green men," they wonder at the wisdom of putting all of our eggs in this alluring but potentially fragile basket.

While the scientists debate this, NASA and the last two presidential administrations have already decided that our exploration program is to be focused on astrobiology. A biocentric approach to exploration is even specifically mandated in President Bush's 2003 budget request for NASA, which states that from now on our missions will have "clear science priorities that support key goals in understanding the potential existence of life beyond Earth and the origins of life."

So, there you have it. The president wants us to find life. That's cool. I don't have a problem with that. But how do we actually go about exploring in a biocentric way? This means different things to different people. For some, it seems to translate into "Explore Mars and Europa and everywhere else can wait."

When we propose new space missions, we have to make the case as compelling as possible, because our proposals are just chirps in a crowded nest of hungry little birds, beaks open wide and desperately hoping for that big worm from Mama NASA. These days everyone knows that if we want to get fed, we had better squawk loudly about astrobiology. We all want our planetary missions to be as sexy as possible, and "to seek new life" has an enticing ring, whereas simply "boldly going where no one has gone before" sounds like a rerun. Making this connection is sometimes seen as a great challenge for planets that are generally regarded as big biospheric losers.

It's hard to think of two more different planets than Venus and Pluto, yet politically they have in a way ended up in the same boat (I hope they're not sharing a cabin because they'd be fighting the whole time over the thermostat.) Pluto's biggest problem is that it is not Europa. Venus's biggest problem is that it is not Mars. Both Venus and Pluto should factor into a broad biocentric exploration plan. Venus is, in many ways, our best hope for learning about the ongoing functioning of complex Earth-like worlds. As a representative of a completely unexplored realm, Pluto is an unopened time capsule dating from the earli est days of the solar system. Pluto will teach us about the history of planetary ice and how some of it became water and then life on Earth. Pluto also seems to have an active interchange between its surface and atmosphere, so we are almost guaranteed to find some kind of complex phenomena there that will surprise us when we finally see them. It is also the case, if you are attached to "life as we know it," that even a liquid water ocean in the interior of Pluto cannot be ruled out. Only a misguided notion of what it means to be biocentric would deter us from going to Venus or Pluto. Right now things are looking good for both the little cold one and the big hot one. The first ever mission to Pluto—a flyby that will hopefully launch in 2006—is being funded, and for the first time in many years plans are being drawn up for a major new American Venus mission. Yet, these missions have both faced major uphill battles. Each has been accused at various times of not going to Mars or Europa.

In my capacity as an adviser to NASA, I have argued that astrobiol-ogy should not change our strategic exploration plans to a large extent. Never mind "still haven't found what I'm looking for": we still don't know what we're looking for, and we won't know until we find it and hear ourselves ask, "How come no one thought of that!?" We should simply continue to explore the solar system widely, seeking a more complete understanding of the planets, always keeping one astrobiolog-ical eye open for the strange, the anomalous, the complex, the improbable, the "unnatural" signs of life. Certainly we should have an openly biocentric attitude as we explore and keep thinking about the kinds of features and patterns that might indicate life. If we do find something that really seems like a sign of life, we will immediately alter our strategic plans. If it looks like somebody might be home somewhere, we'll toss our plans out the window and go back for another visit.

Approached from this perspective, biocentric planetary exploration is just a slightly longer and more compelling phrase for planetary exploration. Having said this, I don't have a problem with calling our exploration program biocentric. If it speaks to why we do what we do, why not say it?

The problem is, we want to tap into the public fascination with the question of life to build support for our missions of exploration. It's much easier to do this by building a specific expectation of finding life. Even when we don't do this deliberately, it's natural for journalists to want to play up this angle. The "search for life" makes better sound bites than does "a wide effort to illuminate the mysteries of the solar system," but the latter might end up teaching us more about life.

Of course it would be worth almost anything to find out what life really represents in our universe. But we have limited resources. Investing money in a targeted search for life elsewhere is more risky than any bet in Atlantic City, since we don't really know what kind of game we're playing. We have to base our strategy on educated guesses. We want to go and look anyway because, well, how could we not? This argument is not sufficient to sway congressional committees, or the White House Office of Management and Budget. It doesn't do to say, "Okay, Madam Senator, we admit we are stabbing in the dark, but if you give us a lot of money, we'll certainly learn much of value, and who knows, we might make the discovery of the millennium." Our missions to other planets are in part scientific experiments, but in large part they are just poking around the neighborhood to see what we dig up. So we ask for money for exploration and seek to justify it as science.

Now that exo has morphed into astro, is biology here to stay as a linchpin of our space exploration plans? If life continues, like quicksilver, to elude our grasping hands, will we stay on task? By casting our lot in with astrobiology we are expressing faith in its longevity. Astrobiology is hot now, but historically both scientific interest and government support are cyclical. It remains to be seen whether we can commit for the long haul. But for our society this is good practice at thinking on long timescales, which as a survival skill is as essential as learning to think globally.

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