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NASA Astrobiology in Peril - Update and Action Suggestions

Status Report From: SETI Institute
Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2006

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Dear Members of the Astrobiology Community,

We are writing to you again to offer some thoughts and suggestions in advance of the upcoming AbSciCon meeting in Washington DC.  Please know that everyone, including the authors here, believes that it is important to reverse the decision to severely cut NASA's R&A budget by 15%.  It is also imperative that a focused effort be maintained to undo the inexplicable 50% cut to Astrobiology research.

Many of you have already responded to the situation with letters and faxes to your elected representatives, and we want to applaud your efforts!  Early indicators are that our voices are being heard.  It is important to understand that the effort to turn around the FY 2007 budget plan is going to be a long one.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.  The federal appropriations cycle for 2007 has just begun, and will run through the spring and summer.  Therefore, a steady pace of action from the community is what is needed.  Here are some suggestions:

CALL RIGHT NOW TO MAKE YOUR APPOINTMENT IN DC

First, right now you should be contacting your two senators and your local representative and making appointments to see them while you are in DC next week.  If you cannot get an appointment with the elected official, then request a meeting with the staff person who handles science and/or education matters.  Your personal face to face visit will have significant impact, and will also give you the chance to begin to build a rapport that may prove valuable over the coming months.  Remember, you are a space scientist and an astrobiologist, you live in their district, and this impacts you and your colleagues.  Your representative will care, and will want to help.  You can get the phone numbers of these three offices by going to http://www.aas.org/policy/aas.bios.html and simply typing in your zip code.  The web site will respond with the names and contact information of your two senators and your representative.

MAP OF ASTROBIOLOGY IN THE U.S.

The old saying that  "a picture is worth a thousand words" led to our development of a tool that should be very useful for you.  See:

http://seti.sitestream.com/astrobiology%20map.pdf (this is the map and requires Acrobat 6.0 or higher)

http://seti.sitestream.com/astrobiology%20map%20text.pdf (this is the 'reverse side' of the map)

Copies of this map (with the summary description page printed on the back) will be in your AbSciCon registration packet, and extra copies will be available at the conference.  You can also print copies directly from the links above.  These two pages clearly display the impact of the astrobiology program.  Rarely, if ever, has a federal R&D program sparked such broad impact in only a decade.  Astrobiology programs or activities exist at some level in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in Puerto Rico.  An examination of the detail shows that over three hundred Congressional districts host astrobiology related activities.  This covers almost 3/4ths of the U.S. House of Representatives and all 100 members of the Senate.  Constituency interest such as this is unusual for a modest sized research program that was originally scheduled for a meager $65 million per year of taxpayer dollars.  We encourage you to:

  • Take copies of these pages with you on each Congressional visit and leave them with the staff.
  • Mail copies to decision makers along with your own statements about the importance of astrobiology.
  • Provide copies to your home institution's president and ask him/her to write Administrator Griffin and the Chairpersons of the Congressional committees.

SEND AUTOMATED FAXES

The SETI Institute is now providing an automated fax capability where you can enter your customized text and send faxes to all of the key Congressional committee members.  Please go to the following page and follow the link "How to Contact Congress": http://www.seti.org/site/pp.asp?c=ktJ2J9MMIsE&b=1425163

NASA's POSITION

In a February 27, 2006 letter answering a query by Bruce Runnegar and Baruch Blumberg, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said that he "must agree that support for astrobiology is central to achieving the scientific objectives of the Vision (for Space Exploration)".  However, he goes on to say that difficult budget choices must be made, and we can sympathize with Administrator Griffin's problem.  He says that the cuts to astrobiology are appropriate since a few missions, such as Mars Sample Return, have been deferred.  Even so, the regular queue of missions is not being discontinued.  More importantly, astrobiology 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 astrobiology community. Only by funding the science and instrument programs will future Principal Investigators be able to truly look for the "fingerprints of life".  It takes about 8 years to really impact a mission cycle. The proposed cutbacks now in the instrument and experiments programs would terminate efforts just as the community is starting to make real progress.

CUTTING OFF THE NEXT GENERATION

The current Administration has suggested that workforce training is critical to our future, and that the United States must not fall behind in science and technical training.  Today, 670 secondary and post secondary education institutions are training students in astrobiology.  These students are inspired by the fact that astrobiology is intentionally multi-disciplinary, pulling together the threads from many exciting sciences in an attempt to answer some of humankind's most profound questions.  There is an entire generation just now leaving school with their advanced degrees, and NASA is saying to them that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a career in this field.  These are our best and brightest students, and NASA cannot in good conscience abandon the future of space science.  In a recent interview with SPACE.com, Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and of Physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, commented on the cuts to Astrobiology.  "This worries me.  The reasoning cited in Associate Administrator Cleave's letter http://science.hq.nasa.gov/DearColleague03-06/index.html is that the lower flight rate envisioned to Mars makes the current level of astrobiological research inappropriate. But we are in the midst of a flood of new results right now—at Mars, with Stardust, at Titan, at Enceladus, with new extrasolar planet discoveries, and so on.  Why cut astrobiology in this fiscal year?  And, more fundamentally, at my home institution the vast majority of prospective graduate students cite astrobiology as a key draw in choosing a graduate career in planetary science."  Lunine also said that the astrobiology cut, if sustained, "will send a very negative message about space science careers to the talented students who are our future. Surely NASA doesn't want that?"

IMPORTANT TO DEFEND ALL OF SPACE SCIENCE

It is important to remember that we are all advocating for more overall dollars for the NASA science budget.  Any solution that robs from one program in favor of another is not the right solution.

We look forward to seeing you at AbSciCon.  Please come to the Tuesday Community Town Hall meeting from 1-2 PM where we can discuss this in more detail.

Sincerely,

Baruch S. Blumberg

Former Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, SETI Institute Trustee, and Nobel Laureate

and

Thomas Pierson

CEO, SETI Institute

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