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NASA Tries To Explain Its Astrobiology Shyness

By Keith Cowing
February 26, 2020
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NASA Tries To Explain Its Astrobiology Shyness

Keith’s note: Over the past week I have posted several commentaries about how NASA shies away from using the word “astrobiology” in official agency releases and stories to describe missions and research designed to search for evidence of life on other worlds – which, of course, is the core mission of NASA’s 20 year old Astrobiology Program:
NASA Continues To Hide Its Astrobiology Program
NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Has An Issue With Certain Words
I asked NASA several times why this is the case. Below is my inquiry, their response, and my commentary on their response:

NASAWatch to NASA PAO: NASA SMD has an extensive Program Officers list with contact information for all of its research programs posted at . Virtually everything SMD does has a contact listed – except “Astrobiology”. The word is not mentioned at all – even though many of its sub=topics are mentioned. NASA issues research solicitations for “astrobiology” yet SMD can’t be bothered to tell people who to contact for the programs managed under “Astrobiology” at NASA?
NASA PAO to NASAWatch: Hi, Keith, regarding your original question, I apologize for the delay in response. NASA’s robust Astrobiology program draws from cross disciplinary sciences like Astrophysics, Earth Science, Geology, etc. Astrobiology is a multi-faceted term that encompasses not just the search for life but the origin and evolution of life on Earth. We have been working for 20 years to broadly increase understanding of the term astrobiology and are encouraging our writers to use it. The reporting you cite, is intended for broader public outreach. In which case, we used “searching for life” to be more specific and highlight when our research or missions are targeting the agency’s priority of finding evidence of life beyond Earth.
NASAWatch to NASA PAO: Thank you for your response.
1. Your response does not explain why an exhaustive list of all that SMD does and who to contact manages to mention virtually every discipline, subdiscipline, subprogram, program and instrument acronym one can imagine – except “Astrobiology”. You said that the term “Searching for Life” was used instead. I don’t see it on the list. Given that NASA has had a formal Astrobiology program for 20 years – and the National Academy has committees and reports about “astrobiology’ this is simply baffling. All it would take is for someone at NASA to care enough to tell the web page editor to put an entry for “Astrobiology” with Mary Voytek’s contact info (it is already listed under “habitability”). That way NASA would be internally and externally consistent with itself.
2. Your response also does not address why missions like Mars 2020 – a mission with a core mission goal of searching for evidence of past life on Mars – or Mars Sample Return – which has a similar core life detection goal – do not make even a passing reference to NASA’s official program for searching for life elsewhere i.e. Astrobiology. Does NASA avoid using the term “oceanography” when it posts a story about some satellite making measurements of the oceans? As for the “previous microbial life” phrase – it is clumsy and sounds like a PR person came up with it because they don’t understand the topic that they are writing about.
3. Why does NASA have to “encourage” its writers – who are NASA employees/contractors – to accurately describe NASA programs? can’t you just direct them? Do you have to encourage people writing articles about Parker mission to use “heliophysics” when the use of the word is appropriate? If I were inclined to waste more time on this I could find PAO and SMD releases that use big fancy words like “heliophysics”, “astrophysics”, “geophysics”, etc. – the same sort of terms used in the Program Officers list. If NASA does not use a word like Astrobiology then people are not going to see the word used – and the less you use it the more inclined you are to not want to use it, so it would seem. Doesn’t NASA have a style guide for its writers? Based on the “past microbial life” sentence – yes, NASA does.
4. Having been at the very first Astrobiology organizing meeting in September 1996 at NASA Ames where I was one of the authors of the document that defined “astrobiology” so I am intimately familiar with the term. Not to use the word Astrobiology is like saying “sun studies” instead of “Heliophysics” and “star studies” instead of “Astronomy”.
Again thanks for taking the time to respond. Astrobiology represents a discipline that is now studied globally – one that will only become more prominent in the years to come. To not use the term “astrobiology” which is universally associated with this multidisciplinary search to describe what NASA is doing is to be deliberately inaccurate. NASA adopts the use of new terms all the time – “STEM”, “Citizen science”, “Cubesats”, are commonly used by NASA yet they are younger than “astrobiology” in their broad usage. Do a Google search for “astrobiology” – I did and I got 2,720,000 search results. It is not a NASA word any more (it never was). Go use Google translate and you will see – астробиология – Astrobiologia – Astrobiologie – astrobiologi – Astrobioloxía – Астробиологија – Astrobiolojî – Astrobiologija – Astrobioloogia – Astrobiologio – and these are the only ones I can actually read/pronounce.
I got another update – from NASA SMD: While it is true that the program officer list at lacks a higher-level category for astrobiology, that is not particular to Astrobiology, it is also true for Mars for example. That is, we have a Mars program and a Mars program director, but that doesn’t appear the program officer list, only the points of contact for the individual ROSES program elements such as the Mars Data Analysis program.
Thank you, however, for drawing our attention to the fact that the word Astrobiology does not appear on that page at all, it led us to realize that we missed an update to the list. We should have added a point of contact for “Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research” when that program element that was added to ROSES-2019 late in the year. Its absence was an oversight because of the timing. We apologize and have already corrected this error.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.