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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
also had an independent history on Mars or other planets and moons in our solar system. This study is an essential part of the new synergy between astronomy, planetary science, and biology—what has been called astrobiology” (p. 157). The decadal survey continues by noting (pp. 157-158) that astrobiology has the potential to:
“… encourage collaborations across … disciplines in order to address questions that compel the imaginations of scientists and citizens alike.”
“… draw together investigators from disciplines that in the past have shared little except a common interest in understanding the natural world.”
“… [bring] diverse scientific cultures together at the right moment in time.”
“… [generate] extraordinary public interest … by [its] attempts to understand our origins and the ubiquity of life in the universe.”
“… link the seemingly abstract world of research at the frontiers of knowledge to questions that have excited the human imagination since people first gazed at the heavens.”
Another discussion of the role of astrobiology in the context of a traditional space-science activity can be found in New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy,38 the first solar system exploration (SSE) decadal survey. That document highlights the role of astrobiology in (p. 158):
“… [providing] a scientific organizational structure that integrates a wide subset of solar system issues and questions that span the origins, evolution, and extinction of life.”
“… [allowing] nonexperts to grasp the connections between different component disciplines within planetary science and to do so in a way that most people will appreciate as addressing core themes in human thought.”
“… [being] the primary means by which NASA tries to implement one of its prime objectives—understanding life’s origins and its distribution in the universe.”
“… [becoming] a fundamental part of the solar system exploration strategy.”
In summary, the SSE decadal survey report “… encourages NASA to continue the integration of astrobiology science objectives with those of other space science disciplines. Astrobiological expertise should be called upon when identifying optimal mission strategies and design requirements for flight-qualified instruments that [will] address key questions in astrobiology and planetary science” (p. 9).
The goals of astrobiology have not only figured prominently in NRC reports. In outlining plans to implement the Vision for Space Exploration—the initiative to return humans to the Moon and, ultimately, to Mars—President George W. Bush charged NASA to conduct robotic exploration of Mars to search for evidence of life; to explore Jupiter’s moons, asteroids, and other bodies to search for evidence of life; and to undertake advanced telescopic searches for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars.39 These fundamental, astrobiology goals, enunciated by President Bush in 2004 as the science component of the Vision, figure prominently in NASA strategy planning documents.40
The most recent NRC comments on the role, scope, and status of NASA’s Astrobiology program are made in An Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs.41 This document makes the following points (p. 20):
“The decadal surveys for astrophysics and for solar system exploration both embraced astrobiology as a key component of their programs, with the questions encompassed by astrobiology serving as overarching themes for the programs as a whole.”
“The missions put forward in the solar system exploration survey are all key missions in astrobiology, whether they are labeled as such or not. And issues and missions related to astrobiology represent one of the key areas of interest identified in the astronomy and astrophysics communities.”
“Astrobiology provides the intellectual connections between otherwise disparate enterprises.”
The report continues by recognizing that: “NASA’s Astrobiology program creates an integrated whole and supports the basic interdisciplinary nature of the field. Further, the Vision [for Space Exploration] is, at its heart,