Yesterday, October 14, 2010, Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator between 1992 and 2001, made a rare appearance at a fiftieth anniversary symposium on astrobiology. The event, “Seeking Signs of Life: A Symposium Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of NASA’s Exobiology Program,” brought together academics, NASA scientists and engineers, historians, and others to consider the 50 years of formal efforts to learn the answer to the core question of spaceflight, at least as far as I am concerned, “Are we alone in the universe?” Four panels, and four different keynote speakers, explored various aspects of this theme and what it might mean for humanity.
Organized by Linda Billings of George Washington University and others, it was an outstanding experience, both enjoyable and illuminating. The venue, Lockheed Martin’s Global Vision Center in Arlington, Virgina, was a fine facility for this gathering of more than 100 attendees that read like a who’s who of astrobiology, including Gaia theory proponent James Lovelock. I was honored to serve as the moderator for the first panel, dealing with the history of exobiology/astrobiology. Panelists on that session included Steven J. Dick, former NASA historian and an author of several historical studies on astrobiology; Noel Hinners, who served in several capacities at NASA and Lockheed relating to space science; and Baruch Blumberg, first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
The luncheon speaker was Daniel S. Goldin, who revitalized this aspect of space science during his tenure as NASA administrator. Since leaving NASA he has refrained from participating in many space-oriented activities and has remained silent on the space policy debate taking place concerning the future of humans in space. Indeed, during his remarks yesterday he insisted that he would comment only about history and not about future directions. And some of it was revisionist history, as many commented afterward. Even so, Goldin offered a really interesting perspective on the last eighteen years at NASA. First, he commented about meeting and talking with Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) during the confirmation process in 1992. Hollings said he drew him a graph that tracked over time the budget the NASA had requested, showing that it went up at a steady rate over the years. Hollings then drew for him the budget that Congress–and presumably the White House as well–envisioned for NASA. It was a flat line as far as the eye could see. The point was clear. NASA was not going to get an increase in its budget, despite its pressing for one and despite the recommendations of the Augustine Commission in 1990 for increases to the NASA appropriation.
Goldin also told how only nine days after Bill Clinton was sworn in as president in 1993 he went to the White House for a meeting with OMB head Leon Panetta and others. He said that Panetta drew the same graph, showing what NASA wanted and what the White House would be able to support; they were the same as Hollings had shown. The attempt to hold the NASA budget flat throughout the 1990s, which we have all known about for years, was unveiled to Goldin when he arrived at NASA and that priority never really averred throughout his tenure. Hollings was prophetic, the budget remained essentially flat throughout the decade.
The restriction on NASA’s budget was the overwhelming driver for everything else Goldin did, he commented. He would have liked to have undertaken a lot of the missions that NASA officials advocated, but how do you fit the desires into the tight confines of the budget realities? His approach was to try to reallocate resources, reduce costs, and eliminate overhead wherever possible. That led to decisions enormously controversial at the time and since: hiring freezes, buyouts, relocations, threatened RIFs, etc. Goldin’s famous temper and callousness came through as heads butted throughout the space agency in trying to reorganize and restructure. It was a temptestuous decade. I may comment further on Goldin’s understanding of history in a future post, since I was the NASA Chief Historian throughout this period but let me move on to the core of his remarks.
Goldin noted that when most people think of NASA they think immediately of the Apollo Moon landings. That is appropriate, but their eyes also light up when considering the prospect of life somewhere else in the universe. He was concerned, Goldin said, that the biological frontier of science was passing NASA by. He remarked that the twentieth century was the century of physics, but that the twenty-first century would be about biology. This is not an original characterization by any means, but Goldin’s emphasis on bringing this to the center of NASA efforts is certainly important. Astrobiology represented ground zero for what NASA could do in this arena.
There was also a lot of ferment elsewhere with direct applicability to NASA’s search for life beyond Earth during Golidn’s time at NASA. The research on extremophile life on Earth, at the bottom of the oceans around sea vents, within rocks, etc., all fueled reconsiderations of what this might mean for life elsewhere in the solar system. As Cornell University scientist Bill Nye commented about “extremophilic” life: “It’s compelling evidence for astrobiologists that the environmental limits for living things are set pretty far apart.”
The Mars meteorite of 1996 and the hoopla it stirred up also suggested that this was an avenue of great significance to Americans. Goldin was completedly jazzed by this experience and recommended Kathy Sawyer’s book, “The Rock from Mars,” as a good discussion of what took place.
As discussed at the time, when the 4.2-pound, potato-sized rock (identified as ALH84001) was formed as an igneous rock about 4.5 billion years ago, Mars was much warmer and probably contained oceans hospitable to life. Then, about 15 million years ago, a large asteroid hit the red planet and jettisoned the rock into space, where it remained until it crashed into Antarctica around 11,000 BCE. Scientists presented three compelling, but not conclusive, pieces of evidence suggesting that fossil-like remains of Martian microorganisms, which date back 3.6 billion years, were present in ALH84001. The findings electrified the scientific world but excited the public just as fully, and added support for an aggressive set of missions to Mars to help discover the truth of these theories. While the theory has not been accepted by most of the scientific community, it helped to enthuse many at NASA and reorient much of space science toward answering this question about life beyond. Indeed, as Goldin noted, the Mars program gained a new lease on life in no small part because of these developments.
Finally, Dan Goldin believes we are on the cusp major discoveries in astrobiology. His talk was vintage Dan Goldin, who always had the ability to speak with passion and authority even as he may ramble a bit and certainly as he spun a revisionist history from what many other veterans of the experience recall. A webcast of Goldin’s speech may be found, along with all of the other presentations at the symposium, on this website: http://www.livestream.com/astrobiology50th.