Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Kelly O’Melveny warns of ‘rapid descent into anti-scientific panic’ if we continue searching blindly
The directors of the twin American space programmes – NASA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – published a rare joint editorial on Tuesday, warning the United States that attempts to detect extraterrestrial life will be futile unless a broader strategy for seeking intelligence from other worlds is adopted.
To this end, they advocated a New Frontiers programme that would enable spacecraft to engage in more-sophisticated searches, but also called for a dedicated scientific and scientific literacy programme to help bridge the knowledge gap about the origins of life on Earth.
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“The findings from Spitzer and Kepler are showing us, with no doubt, that life forms other than those from Earth have existed on other planets,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, referring to the recently retired eye on our star and its sister telescope.
“This is, for me, a most exciting observation,” he said, “in many ways it brings closure to a long-standing quest.”
“It’s difficult to get excited about answering a question that’s controversial,” said Daniel Tauriainen, an aerospace engineer and co-author of the op-ed with Zurbuchen and the EPA’s Kelly O’Melveny.
“If we’re not asking the right questions, we’re never going to find the right answers,” he said.
The NASA executives said the space agency must educate the public and force science into the public consciousness. Their editorial was published on the eve of a series of hearings by a joint House-Senate committee which has been looking at a possible drastic reduction in NASA’s budget.
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Both the directors and O’Melveny suggested that NASA could partner with a research institution – perhaps the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, an institution famously eager to welcome visiting astronauts.
But that would require us to “eradicate any doubt that any alien life would be another form of terrestrial life, and that any extraterrestrial life might be our neighbour”, said Zurbuchen.
“Making this distinction may seem a small thing, but making it would seem to be very important,” he said.
The three scientists cautioned, too, that the determination of whether an alien life form was an evolution of Earth had been a tricky question in general.
“From the day of ancient discovery of what appeared to be primitive life forms on Earth, most researchers concluded that those were not the first forms of life on the Earth,” they wrote.
But, they said, recent science suggested that life on Earth was no more than a “peculiar accidental convergence of genetic material which first emerged through such circumstances”.
“So why are we actively searching for anything we wouldn’t even expect to come from Earth? It’s not because we don’t have advanced technology,” Zurbuchen said.
But, he added, there was a need to recognise that we do not know where to look, or how to search for alien life.
The White House has already faced angry protests from NASA workers after Congress rejected the agency’s latest astrophysics budget, and will soon face more threats after the hearings before the joint House-Senate committee.
“One can only assume that, just as the U.S. has tried every exploration step imaginable, we’ll put any way we can to make this exploration simple and effective,” O’Melveny said.