Pond Scum

While computers around the world were processing incoming radio signals, and Project Phoenix was underway at the SETI Institute, NASA reentered the study of the nature and origins of terrestrial and extraterrestrial life. The new emphasis was on life in the universe, not on alien intelligent life as such.

In 1998, five years after the abrupt cancellation of HRMS by Congress, NASA cautiously and judiciously revived the study of extraterrestrial life. Now it was one of the subjects studied by the newly created Astrobiology Institute, located at NASA's Ames Research Center. The new Institute was placed under the directorship of Baruch Blumberg, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. Blumberg directed a "virtual" Institute because its teams of researchers, scattered around the world in universities and laboratories, communicated with one another electronically. On occasion they assembled for more traditional scientific meetings.

The international group of geologists, chemists, oceanographers, planetary scientists, molecular biologists, virologists, zoologists, and paleontologists who gathered at astrobiology meetings endorsed the goals of the new science: to study the origins of life on Earth, determine how it might have arisen elsewhere in the universe, and establish ways to locate and recognize it beyond the Earth.

For the most part, astrobiologists avoided the topic of alien intelligence that had undercut public funding to NASA in the recent past. At an early meeting of astrobiologists, Frank Drake said that intelligent creatures, not "pond scum," were the primary interest of those assembled. However, working astrobiologists initially appeared more interested in the "pond scum" side of their research.

Members of the Institute studied microorganisms that live at extreme temperatures (hot and cold) on Earth, examined meteorites for traces of extraterrestrial microbial life, and looked forward to searching soil samples from Mars or the icy ocean ofEuropa (a moon of Jupiter) for signs of life. Finally, they are interested in the possible detection of biological activity in the atmospheres of one of the many recently discovered extrasolar planets. The radio telescope search for extraterrestrial intelligence does not dominate these ventures as it did the old SETI projects.

NASA did not revive HRMS, but it began to alter its anti-SETI stance, a stance that dated to the 1993 termination of Congressional funding. Frank Drake said that for nearly a decade after Congress eliminated funds for NASA's search for alien intelligence, SETI was a four-letter word at NASA. It was not used in speeches and documents coming from the space agency. The opposition to SETI within NASA began to soften in the early twenty-first century when, as the New York Times reported, SETI research began to gain respect bit by bit.

The change of attitude at NASA was a result of a renewed scientific interest in the origins of life on Earth, questions about life on Mars, and the possibility of life on newly discovered extrasolar planets. NASA's change of attitude was also influenced by research conducted by the SETI Institute. The Institute continued to hunt for radio signals of extraterrestrial origins and study problems in the new science of astrobiology. Using private funding, and grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation, scientists at the Institute continued their investigations outside the confines of the space agency.

In the summer of 2003, NASA formally named SETI Institute scientists to one of twelve new teams in its Astrobiology Institute. Team leader Christopher

Chyba, a SETI Institute scientist and student of Carl Sagan, received a five-year NASA grant to study planetary biology, evolution, and the nature of intelligence. The funding was small, about one million dollars a year, but the symbolic value was large. SETI was back at NASA after an embarrassing defeat in Congress and a decade of exile.

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