A blue ribbon panel of experts said Wednesday that NASA is on track in a program to find answers to some of the most basic questions in science: How did life, the Earth and the universe all begin.
The committee of scientists, selected mostly by the National Academy of Sciences, briefed Vice President Al Gore on the prospects of finding life beyond the Earth, of discovering new planets beyond the sun and of ultimately understanding the nature and history of the universe itself. All in two hours.
John Gibbons, the White House science adviser, said the briefing was in preparation for a meeting in February in which Gore and others in the administration will draw up specific plans on how NASA will proceed in an ambitious program of science that the agency is calling “Origins.”
“The consensus of the group is that the way NASA is going is the right direction in space sciences,” said Gibbons.
The meeting with 18 top U.S. scientists, he said, was “to share the wisdom of outstanding people from a variety of perspectives about the importance of modern day astronomy and recent discoveries that relate to the origins of the solar system and the possibility of life on places other than the Earth.”
Gibbons said the meeting will help Gore and others in the administration to be “more equipped” to make decisions about budgets for NASA and other science agencies. The administration has announced plans for a “Space Summit” meeting in February where a basic program of exploration is to be formulated.
Plans for the space summit were drawn up after NASA scientists announced in August they had found what they believe to be evidence that life once existed on Mars.
Other researchers in recent months have found new planets circling nearby stars, discovered evidence of water on the moon and found new evidence that life, in the form of microbes, is extraordinarily tough and perhaps able to develop in many places in the universe. Some scientists have said it may be possible now, for the first time, to conduct a systematic search for planets elsewhere in the universe where life is possible.
NASA has launched two probes toward Mars and already plans to send two more pairs each in 1998 and 2000. One goal is to look for evidence of life on the Red Planet.
“Our notion that life is rare may be revised,” said Gibbons. “Life may be pervasive in the universe.”
NASA administrator Dan Goldin, who attended the meeting, said discussions with the scientists pointed out the need to conduct experiments to test the “fundamental underpinnings” of life and how it began.
“Our astrobiology (study of extraterrestial life) is woefully underfunded,” said Goldin. “We need to understand what could be the fingerprints of extrasolar (beyond the sun) life.”
Also included in the meeting were two clerics, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Rev. John P. Minogue, president of DePaul University.
Minogue said at a news conference that the race of science to answer basic questions about origins is challenging to religion and to concepts of God.
“The role of religion has always been to connect us with our ancestors and all the way back to the origins,” he said. Minogue added that society needs both science and religion - science to gather new understanding and religion to connect “to our roots.”
“It is a very exciting adventure because of what is being discovered,” said Minogue.