There's No Place Like Home? 

Not so fast, Dorothy! It looks as if Earth may not be so special after all. Second in a two-part series.

Page 5 of 6

Neither did our solar system turn out to be the only one, and it seems increasingly likely that Earth isn't the only pale-blue dot with all of the ingredients for life. "There's a lesson in all of this," Shostak says. "We keep thinking that there is something special about our location, our situation, something, and that's perfectly natural to think that, but the track record is that sort of assumption is going to be wrong."

So if we do find life in the universe, especially if we find it twice in our own solar system as astrobiologists have been endeavoring to do, what does that tell us? "That life is just part of the universe in the same way that asteroids are part of the universe," Shostak says. "Life's not a miracle. Life is just an infection. It's everywhere. It's just one of those things."

That search for just one positive signal still has a long way to go, and now scientists are going to have to do it with significantly fewer resources. The budget for NASA's Astrobiology Institute was slashed last year from around $62 million a year down to roughly $31 million this fiscal year and next.

The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which was supposed to give astrobiologists a close-up look at the moon Europa, a likely candidate to host life within our own solar system, was scrapped. Two long-awaited telescope probes of great value to planet hunters — the Terrestrial Planet Finder and a craft called SIM PlanetQuest — met a similar fate.

Instead, NASA says its priority will be returning a manned mission to the Moon, and later landing people on Mars. Academic scientists, who are less dependent on NASA for their projects and funding, will tell you plainly that they believe the space agency is mainly pursuing a public-relations mission, and that any research opportunities have been tacked on as an afterthought. "The goal of going to the Moon and Mars is not science-driven," Fischer says flatly. "It's very politicized."

"What's the point of going to the Moon and Mars if you don't do the science?" Shostak agrees. "Are we just doing it for the tourism?"

Depending on whom you ask, the motivation is either to pursue a space race with China (which announced in 2003 that it was planning lunar missions), to stir up the sort of national pride inspired by the United States' first Moon landing, or to reaffirm NASA's image as a manned space agency despite two shuttle disasters and the lackluster Space Station program.

Admittedly, Shostak says, the public is hungry for something new and glorious. "We're always spending all this money to see astronauts play with their food in zero-G orbit around the Earth," he says. "They've been doing that for decades now. Where is the excitement, where is the goal, where is the really inspirational effort? Going to Mars, well, there is something romantic about that."

Not to mention dangerous and expensive, two more reasons some scientists say this is a bad time for manned space exploration. With Iraq draining vast sums from the federal budget, and NASA overburdened with the shuttles and the Space Station, they say it makes no sense to launch large, costly rockets that can transport humans when robotic probes are so much cheaper. Plus, when robot probes fail — and Mars missions have a history of failure — nobody dies or taints the very surface astrobiologists hope isn't already contaminated with Earth life from previous landings.

Carl Pilcher, director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, doesn't know if the budget cuts will be permanent, but points out that $3 million of missing funds was restored this year, bringing the total up to $34 million. "My crystal ball is cloudy, but I'm an optimist," he says. "We are trying to do things that are so exciting and so compelling that they will lead to the restoration of funding." He has a point: It was the later-discredited announcement that traces of life had been found in a Mars meteorite that stirred up public excitement and prompted NASA to start an astrobiology institute in the first place.

But Pilcher also warns that when funding goes on hiatus, the field risks losing the talented young scientists it attracted during the previous decade: "It's a great concern, because it introduces uncertainty in their prospects." Likewise, Fischer agrees, when spacecraft missions are scrapped — or in NASA parlance, "pushed back" indefinitely — they lose the engineering team that designed them. Even if the mission gets rescheduled later, the brainpower that created these complex machines has dispersed to other projects. "Scientists are caught in this — if they wanted us to be at each other's throats, they couldn't have planned it any better, because my best friend's mission is canceled and my mission goes forward," Fischer says. "Now he goes and lobbies and his mission gets put back on the books and my mission is canceled. It's just horrible. And they're all valuable, is the truth, and they all worked, and it's just that things got too expensive."


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