Martian landscape as photographed by Opportunity
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is holding a series of hearings leading up to another NASA authorization bill, which helps set goals and authorizes funding for the agency (2017-2018's bill is here). On Wednesday, scientists from U.S. universities, the Smithsonian Institution, and NASA answered senators’ questions about why Congress should fund the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

“I believe it’s one of the big questions of all of humanity,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told the Senate committee. “This is how great nations make a mark—what they do for their citizens and how they move history forwards.”

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Some of the researchers noted that pursuing tough questions brings innovation and drives the economy forward. Practical technology such as GPS came from scientists solving physics problems they were interested in (also, satellites, nukes, and the Cold War). The search for alien life also draws new excitement, encouraging young researchers to enter the field.

“Most senior engineers today, either in civilian space science, national defense or national security, were inspired by the moon landings,” Sara Seager, MIT professor of physics and planetary science, told the committee. “And today, the equivalent of that is the search for life.”

One common theme was something that tends to resonate with members of Congress: America being the best at stuff. While the US can still be considered a leader in space science—we’re still developing impressive technology like the Starshade that could assist in the Earth 2.0 hunt—European and Chinese space programs are catching up in terms of research, development, and innovation.

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“Looking to where [China] might be a decade from now, if we stop investing, they will be the leaders,” Princeton astronomer David Spergel told the senators.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) asked about climate change and how space exploration could help people here on Earth. Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, explained that looking at the climates of other planets has helped us understand our own. Specifically, studying Venus’ atmosphere helped scientists identify the hole in the Earth’s ozone layer back in the 1970s. Seager mentioned that medical imaging relies on astronomy techniques, and that her team at MIT is working on a small planet-hunting satellite that will probably be more useful for the way it packages data than the way it finds exoplanets. “There’s so many, we could talk here for hours,” said Zurbuchen.

Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) asked why physicists think that life might be on Mars, given that it only had water for around 500 million years. Stofan explained the importance of actually sending humans to Mars—the life that might have developed on the planet wouldn’t have been complex, but single-celled. “I think it will take humans on the planet breaking open a lot of rocks” to find fossilized evidence of life, she said.

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Senator Peters asked whether there might be advanced civilizations we aren’t able to find. Stofan said that NASA is pursuing the correct way of locating life, which is first understanding the nature and variety of life that may have evolved in our own Solar System. This knowledge could provide a basis for finding complex life elsewhere in the galaxy.

It’s clear that both houses of Congress are excited about space science, despite recent setbacks related to the James Webb Space Telescope. They don’t want to lose ground to China, and they want new technologies that private industry can use. But most importantly, pretty much everyone wants to find aliens.