Oddly, the people who voted for Obama to remake politics
, never expected him to be remaking science. After all, his cabinet picks were all non-private sector academics
. But despite this expectation, it would seem that the politics is as political as ever, and now in the nuclear devastation where ideology
trumps tradition, scientific agencies are getting the fallout. We've seen how the unpromising embryonic stem cell research
employed politicization to garner support, we've seen how AIDS research (and its suppression of anti-AIDS work)
has profitted the medical field, how global warming has gamed climatology
(not to mention Al Gore's naked exploitation
). Now we are seeing the chickens come home to roost for NASA. It's a long a twisting tale, and we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, so the outcome is still uncertain. Nevertheless it will be instructive to tell it as it has presently unfolded.
We begin in 1961 with JFK's stirring speech
after the formation
of NASA and its goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade. Which we did in 1969
, and thereby established NASA as the premier agency in the world for manned space. Long before the Moon speech however, in 1956 the director of NASA, Werner Von Braun, had wanted to go to Mars
, and in 1972 outlined to NASA employees how to do it in 13 years (=1985): with a nuclear rocket
. NASA had built and tested four of five nuclear rockets over the preceding 5 years, even setting a record for the most powerful
nuclear reactor that lasted 30 years! But the economic collapse of America (in part due to OPEC) ended not just
American support for the war in Indochina and the Apollo program, but also the NERVA
In this twilight of the gods the US began to experience economic decay, stagflation
and the loss of discretionary funds that made NASA possible. Manned spaceflight was scaled back. The mission of NASA redefined. Unmanned or "robotic" missions become the priority. NASA changed its logo to "the worm". The manned Mars program went "underground
" (the original name of the society). Physics bachelor
degrees peaked. And Jimmy Carter told us all to put on a sweater
if we felt a chill.
Nevertheless, the dream stayed alive, and when Reagan became president he asked the old timers at NASA what we needed to do to keep the agency relevant. They told him, resurrect the manned program with the Space Station as the core and Mars the goal
. Well the goal kept getting more expensive
($400bn for chemical to Mars without a nuclear rocket), and so the Station became the de facto centerpiece of NASA, albeit a shrinking
In the roaring 90's NASA had steady growth, but the new administration gave lip service to the manned program, preferring once again to fund robotic exploration. So when Bush met with NASA administrators in 2001, he found a more serious problem than Reagan two decades earlier. Not only had all the old timers retired, but the agency was saddled with a voracious Station in a tight federal budget with epidemic health care costs, a growing bureaucracy increasingly unable to adapt or even meet milestones, an aging and unmaintained Shuttle fleet that was soon to lead to disaster
, and aggressive European and Japanese space agencies eager to scoop NASA's robotic missions. In other words, an unaffordable government agency fast losing its global brand.
[As an aside, my US mentors in satellite hardware were wined and dined by Europeans in the middle 70's eager for their NASA technology, but when I went to Europe in the early 90's there was an unstated belief that American dominance had faded, and Europeans would now be the leaders in launchers (Ariane 5
vs Titan IV
), exploration (Cornerstone
)) and even manned programs (Hermes
So Bush's advisors suggested reinstating the Reagan goals, a manned mission
to Mars using the Space Station as a launch platform. Immediately the bureaucracy kicked in
, seeing it as a stealth move to gut the robotic missions. I'll never forget the 2004 conference I attended in which all the NASA-funded scientists (robotic missions) bemoaned the injustice of a Kerry loss with its consequent four more years of Bush-directed manned programs. The shrinking NASA budgets (not absolutely
, but as a percentage
) had caused the robotic program (rockets, sub-orbital, scientists) to view the manned program (astronauts, Shuttle, Station, engineers) as competitors in a zero-sum game. There was foot-dragging, a blizzard of whitepapers, a glut of engineering studies, a thousand powerpoints of flight, but no progress on the manned program.
So Bush hired an old-timer engineer
to manage NASA and get the show on the road and the result was the Constellation program
: a remake of the 1969 triumph. It wasn't nuclear, it wasn't new
, it wasn't even Mars, but it did get the manned program out of LEO again. For NASA had stalled and Griffin believed it was easier to steer a moving car. But the scientists hated it
. So the polarization at NASA between scientists and engineers increased, with many scientists in my workplace humiliated to discover they had been reassigned as engineering support.
Therefore it came as no surprise when one of the earliest actions
of the Obama administration was to dump administrator Griffin
and cancel Constellation
. (Mind you, NASA is a puny government agency compared to NIH, or NSA, yet its administrator was shown the door before these others were evaluated, even before the inauguration. By contrast, a previous NASA administrator, Goldin, had served three presidents.) Why the rush? Because the infighting within NASA had become lethal.
But with the cancellation, Obama had another problem. NASA was founded as a manned program, and at the completion of the Apollo manned program, the justification that Reagan and Bush found for continuing the agency was being removed. What would NASA's mission become without astronauts? Why even the Chinese were working on rockets for their astronaut corps, and the US was planning to rent seats on Russian rides? We knew how this was going to turn out. When the Shuttle disasters caused the US to rely on Russian launchers
to supply the Station, the price suddenly skyrocketed
. And what if we get into a trade dispute with Russia? Nope, it just wasn't going to fly.
Obama's brain trust was working feverishly
on this one. They decided that the new mission for NASA would be a manned mission to Mars
. No, I wasn't surprised
that the media decided this was a noble goal, despite excoriating Bush for the same plan. The puzzle rather was how Obama would accomplish this goal that had evaded 3 Republican presidents dedicated to the manned program. Evidently he didn't have a solution either, because a week later he switched to an asteroid mission.
Oh sure, the press is selling it algore, "Mission could save the planet!
" But face it, it's pretty dumb, and even worse, boring, because an asteroid is a lot like the Moon, only smaller.
Then Tuesday we get the message
that NASA is going to hold a press conference about extra-terrestrial life the next day. On Wednesday Steve Squyres (of Mars Rover fame) goes on NASA Select cable to tell us that he has new evidence for life on Mars: calcium sulfate. This announcement lit up my inbox. All my biology friends know that I've been involved in Astrobiology, and they all want to know what calcium sulfate (aka blackboard chalk) has to do with life. Precious little, as they know, so they all suspect NASA is trawling for dollars. This was the same conclusion as they had reached in 1996 when NASA announced a Martian meteorite
with signs of embedded life. But the real story is far more convoluted.
In 1976 Gil Levin's instrument
, which he had developed to test for
contaminated sea water off the beaches of California, found life on
. It had been calibrated in Antarctica and after the Mars mission
returned good results, recalibrated in the Atacama desert. The
instrument was very simple. Sterilized agar Petri dish with C14-labelled
nutrients had a sample dropped on it. Some oxygen was wafted across the
dish, and the gas directed into a Geiger tube. If radioactive CO2 was
emitted the Geiger tube recorded the intensity. When there was bacteria,
the signal rose in a classic exponential way. Additional nutrients could
be injected to see if it were really the nutrients that produced the
signal. On Mars, dirt was the sample, and a second sample was baked in
an oven to 350 or so before being put on the agar. The baked sample was
the control, and it gave no signal. The unbaked one produced the classic
growth curve. It was done twice by two landers in two different
locations for a total of 8 data sets. Every one of them gave the same
result. Not only so, but one could see a diurnal modulation of the CO2
signal, which is also a characteristic of light-sensitive life with an
Levin published the first results as the discovery of life, and Carl
Sagan threw a hissy fit. He was not on Gil's instrument group, and in
fact, Gil didn't even have a PhD. So Sagan claimed "extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence" and said Gil's experiment wasn't as
extraordinary as his mass spectrometer, which didn't see life. Later
calibrations showed that Sagan's mass spec was about 3 orders of
magnitude too insensitive and couldn't see life in Antarctica nor the
Atacama desert either. But based on the negative result from Sagan,
NASA changed the press release to lack of convincing evidence for life;
claimed that "supermetalloperoxides" could explain Gil's data (it
couldn't, as Gil published over the next 10 years), and forbad anyone
from trying to send another instrument to Mars to search for life. Water
they could look for, just not life.
So that's where the official stance stood for 30 years. The Mars rovers
gone all over Mars and found many water-generated minerals. In fact,
many minerals like clay require the breakdown of rocks by bacterial
action, and are very strong evidence of life. The rovers found these
"biominerals" in many places. NASA took pictures of algal like
discolorations of ice in the polar caps. ESA (european space agency)
took pictures of algal like growth in craters, ESA measured unstable
methane production in the atmosphere. But NASA still did not announce
life. In 1996 David McKay
found that a meteorite
, collected in 1984 in Antarctica and known to have come from
Mars, possessed carbonate inclusions with organic molecules indicative of life. Again, accidental release
the embargoed paper led to an announcement of Mars life that was later
retracted and McKay disparaged.
So it was a great puzzle that on Wednesday's NASA Select presser about life on Mars, Steve Squyres of Mars rover fame,
a politically savvy scientist, stood up and said Calcium Sulphate
is evidence of life. Because:
a) Nasa hasn't done this for 30 years;
b) Squyres has no intention of biting the hand that feeds him;
c) Calcium sulphate is gypsum, with about as close a connection to life
as it has to education. ("It's educated life!");
d) It's been known forever--it isn't new, it isn't even the best data
Squyres has, why on internal cable channel NASA Select only, and why now?;
Then the following day,
Thursday, when Jim Green, the director of the Planetary Division at NASA HQ gave press release
on CNN that NASA was now
looking for life on Mars, the light bulb went on.
Obama had destroyed the Moon program (since it was Bush's idea) and NASA
is adrift. So I imagine Obama is up late, unable to sleep over the
criticism he's getting from his formerly appreciative academics, idly
channel surfing when he hits the Discovery Channel's four-part series
Stephen Hawking. (Hawking, you recall, is the wheelchair-bound physicist
who sat in the Lucasian chair of Mathematics formerly occupied by Isaac
Newton. Being about the most famous physicist since Einstein and
greatly admired by academics everywhere, he had decided to make a film of
his most religious sci-fi dreams and share it with us. Not only does
Hawking believe in ET life, he believes it will be hostile, and we
should not attempt to communicate with it, but rather find it before it
finds us.) Suddenly Obama is sitting ramrod straight in bed hollering for
Life on Mars would be sufficient cause
for abandonning the Moon!
So after 30 years of suppression, NASA now needs experts really really badly.
was the first one they could find. And he wasn't given very much
time to prepare his talk. Nor did Squyres know whether Rahm was being level with him. Perhaps this was a putsch, and someone wanted him compromised and defenestrated. Now its Squyres turn to be up all night agonizing over this talk that would either make or break his funding. In the end, Squyres complied but with the worst data he could muster, so that he could deny it all on Thursday if he had to.
on the other hand, is a division director, which is both more political and less pecuniary. He doesn't worry about getting funding for his job, which is by limited appointment anyway, only about pleasing his boss, which in this case, is President Obama. I imagine he also had more time to prepare his speech, which Rahm told him to do on CNN to help their abysmal ratings. Including Mercury in his presentation on NASA's new mission to find life was pure vanity though, (Mercury being far too hot for liquid water) and revealed that despite his administrator role, one couldn't quite take all the scientist out of him.
Rahm likely perused the newspapers the next day. The press releases have barely made a ripple in the generally dour mood about NASA. But he didn't get Obama elected with CNN. I imagine he made a phone call to the NYT and WashPo. I imagine NYT said "No, we'd have to consult our science writers." meaning, "we're distancing ourselves on Obamacare, and side with NASA." WashPo said sure, they'll run an article on Tuesday, tapping a reliable hack, Marc Kaufman, who had written favorably of Obama's asteroid plan the previous week.
The headline was chosen for its sobriety: NASA team cites new evidence that meteorites from Mars contain ancient fossils.
The very thing McKay was denied has now been admitted. (As well as a veiled reference to Hoover's
In other words, NASA has just done a 180.
Now as you might imagine, there's a lot of people at NASA who actually thought there was a reason for denying life on Mars. They weren't consulted, and are making the usual flabbergasted noises while they try to discover which way the wind is blowing. If it weren't so sad, it would be funny, but here's the money quote from WashPo:
Because the stakes involved with any announcement of possible or likely
extraterrestrial life are so high -- both for science and for the
societal and religious implications of such a discovery -- the issue
brings out very strong feelings. At the conference, a leading cautionary
voice in astrobiology proposed that a special protocol be established
to oversee release of any journal articles making dramatic
Andrew Steele, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and
once a member of the McKay team, compared the absence of astrobiology
review with the formal procedures set up by scientists involved with the
search for extraterrestrial life, or SETI.
He said that SETI leaders understood the societal sensitivity of their
work and that it was time for researchers in astrobiology "grow up and
do the same."
In case you are wondering what Steele just said, he is suggesting a censoring committee to prevent papers like McKay's from ever making it into the peer-reviewed literature. (East Anglia anyone?) The stuff about society and religious implications has been addressed on this blog before, and is just smoke screen. The reality is that Andy was already doing this censoring (which is how he got his job), and he's really just complaining that this recent midnight revelation of Obama didn't get his vetting.
It's been a wild week, and if you had asked me, I would have said the Obama administration would be the last one on Earth to reverse NASA's stance on ET. But for obscure reasons, he has. Which is why one should just stick with the truth, for eventually the worm will turn--back into the meatball.