On Monday, November 29, the science community was all abuzz about a big announcement from NASA. That announcement? That they would announce something later that week.
The pre-announcement announcement excited just about everyone, and rightly so. The press release simply stated that there had been some sort of discovery that would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.” Obviously, many believed it would involve little green men or some other evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. And so they waited for Thursday’s conference.
Sadly, what began as a possible confirmation of the existence of aliens on some neighboring planet quickly turned into disappointment for every Star Wars and Star Trek fan in the world. What NASA found didn’t even involve a different celestial body. Rather, it was a microorganism in California’s Mono Lake, which “substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.” (Essentially, it builds parts of itself out of arsenic.)
“Why is this so important?” you may ask. Until now, scientists had established that the six basic building blocks of all life are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Arsenic, because it behaves similarly to phosphate and thus disrupts metabolic pathways, was assumed to be lethal to any life form. This new microorganism proves differently, suggesting that there may be different conditions suitable for fostering life somewhere in the universe, possibly even in a neighboring solar system.
Still, this is no E.T.
In 1961, the late President John F. Kennedy stated, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Maybe it was pride pushing us to beat the Soviets, but it happened. NASA sent a man to the moon before 1970 ever arrived. And it’s all been downhill since.
For the four decades since the moon landing, NASA has been struggling to send another shuttle to the surface of the moon. Despite major advances in technology and numerous other countries contributing their share to space exploration, NASA finds itself unable to do what they did in 1969, at a time when the floppy disk hadn’t even been introduced to the public and computers were the size of whole rooms. Much of the blame for this failure falls not on NASA alone, but on Congress, as well. Ironically, NASA doesn’t actually have a mandate for space exploration. When first created under the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, its purpose was to “provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.” The result of this incredibly vague wording was a lack of direction—at least until Kennedy proposed the moon landing.
Unfortunately, once this was accomplished, NASA was right back where they started, with neither a mandate to continue their research nor a specific new goal. This was temporarily abated when the proposition of building a space station—later followed by construction of the International Space Station—was brought to the table. This objective gave the organization some hope that it would be able to rekindle the fervor of the ’60s, but this time without the post-victory dead end. The Station became their primary concern (even after its completion), with crews regularly being sent aboard.
Unfortunately, the space stations actually proved counterproductive. Not only were they insanely expensive to build and maintain, but they also defeated the purpose of both NASA and the stations themselves. The stations were originally intended to provide effective access to space; but efforts to advance exploration soon became efforts to keep the station running. Moreover, NASA devoted itself to the preservation of outdated technology. Rather than developing new tools for space exploration, they clung to what had already been developed. While the world was introduced to laptop computers, iPhones, and the Wii, NASA was still using tools from an age when few even knew what the internet was.
In addition to NASA’s inability to grow, Congress has, as of late, expanded the meaning of its purpose as stated in the “Space Act,” and pushed upon them the responsibility of conducting research in areas that have absolutely nothing to do with aeronautics or space. (One such case is NASA’s new role as a leader in the study of the existence and effects of global warming.) This past September, Congress put into action the Authorization Act, which cancelled NASA’s Constellation project—an attempt to colonize the moon by 2020—because it was “overbudget and behind schedule.” In addition, earlier this year Congress cut its budget severely, and allowed the shuttle program only two more flights before its forced retirement. Furthermore, NASA has been forced to work with commercial spaceflight companies to build alternative methods of getting crews and cargo to space. More importantly, though, these companies are working to develop aircraft that could transport people to space for commercial purposes. After the final two launches, if the US hasn’t developed this new technology (which, obviously, it won’t), it will have to pay other countries to have _their_ shuttles taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.
Even NASA has begun to take notice of these seemingly irrelevant new responsibilities. In what can only be assumed is an effort to justify their new objectives, NASA included at the bottom of their announcement the following statement: “NASA’s Astrobiology Program supports research into the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth.” Even the organization recognizes that what it does no longer seems pertinent, and they know the rest of the world is catching on.
I will, however, give credit where credit is due. NASA’s discovery completely changes our understanding of what conditions may be suitable for creating and sustaining life. But other than the need to rewrite biology books, we are left with little to hope for in the way of a return to NASA’s former greatness. Ultimately the discovery isn’t so much a milestone as proof that we have a lot of work left to do. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?” In other words, they just learned something new. Not useful, just new.
So where does this leave us? The decade after President Kennedy’s inaugural address now seems, in retrospect, the peak of NASA’s existence. Perhaps we need another Cold War to light a fire under them. Or, perhaps, the initial moon landing really was a hoax, in which case at least there is an excuse for their lack of accomplishments. Either way, if NASA ever hopes to return to its former grandeur, it must do one of two things: adopt a new goal to direct its efforts or finally allow itself to develop new technology. In this respect, Congress’s recent actions may actually be beneficial to the organization. The latter seems to be well underway with NASA’s new partnerships with commercial craft companies. However, whether these collaborations will actually produce something innovative and _useful_ remains to be seen. And there’s still the question of a purpose and objective. Here Congress has definitely inhibited NASA’s potential in limiting them to either continuing whatever it is they do onboard the station or turning space travel into a vacation. But if the past years are any indication of what is to come, NASA won’t be surprising us with any actual discoveries anytime soon (emphasis on the actual).
This is the future. We should have flying cars by now, spaceships that travel at lightspeed, and alien friends (or enemies, but preferably friends) on some distant planet. Instead we have alien life that’s not actually alien and space exploration technology from four decades ago (which in technological years is, like, four centuries). NASA went from launching satellites to roundtrip flights to the moon in less than a decade. You would think they could have accomplished something just as extraordinary in the forty years since.
There was an age once when every little kid aspired to be an astronaut. It’s no wonder their idols are now Justin Bieber and the cast of the Jersey Shore.