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Searching for Great Adventures

There are an infinite number of inspirational scientific journeys awaiting out there, and not all of them require looking up.

Tony Rothman

2014-01PerspectiveF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn July 1969 I spent 14 straight hours glued in front of not one but two televisions, so as not to miss a moment of the first lunar landing. My captivation was more than that of a scientifically inclined youngster; it was a Great Adventure shared with hundreds of millions of other people around the world. Due to the inspiration provided by the space program, an overdose of speculative fiction, and a physicist parent, I ended up pursuing a career in relativity and cosmology. Yet 40 years down the road, when NASA announces the latest discovery of water on (your favorite planetary body here), my first response is an involuntary shudder.

The Pavlovian reflex has arisen over the decades largely in reaction to NASA’s propensity for outrageous hype. A crucial instance for me took place in 1994, when Daniel Goldin, then NASA’s chief administrator, advocated the construction of a lunar-based observatory to search for Earth-like planets on the grounds that their discovery “might inspire us to invent warp drives.” At that moment I parted universes with NASA. Mine was and remains ruled by physics; Goldin’s was evidently ruled by Star Trek. I felt ashamed that one of the country’s top scientific leaders could propose violating the laws of nature as an argument to secure funding.

A more public embarrassment followed two years later, when NASA unleashed a scientific derecho over the country by announcing meteoric evidence for life on Mars. So inflated were the claims of microscopic fossils, announced with velvet and trumpets at a Washington, D.C., press conference, that every one of my colleagues immediately assumed it was a bid for money. The squall passed as quickly as the claims were discredited, but it confirmed what was by then blindingly clear: NASA’s raison d’être in the post-Apollo era is the discovery of extraterrestrial life. That motivation is inherently problematic. There is fantasy, there is adventure, and there is science, and we have never learned where one leaves off and the others begin.

NASA uncomfortably straddles all three terrains, and yet space boosters have had remarkable success in monopolizing the concept of Great Adventure. Doubling NASA’s budget, according to my friend Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, would “transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.” Neil’s words could easily have come, with slightly more sobriety, from the lunch-table conversations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, where I worked for a few summers in the 1970s and where the discovery of extraterrestrial life was viewed as potentially the most important event in the history of humankind.

The discovery of extraterrestrial life would surely have profound philosophical effects. Nevertheless, I recoil at the notion that space is not just the final frontier but the only frontier. It is not entirely clear whether the relative banishment of other endeavors to the shadows is due to the spotlight NASA’s agency-sized publicity budget casts on an already romantic cause, or due to the dismal failure of proponents of those other undertakings to adequately promote them. What is clear is that the concept of adventure must be broadened, and that requires more distinctly perceiving the indistinct borders separating fantasy, hype, starry-eyed romanticism, and science.

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