NYT * May 19, 1999
Search for Life Beyond Earth Gets a Leader
By WARREN E. LEARY
WASHINGTON -- NASA gave new prominence Tuesday to its search for
extraterrestrial life by appointing a Nobel laureate to head its
recently formed Astrobiology Institute, dedicated to studying the
origin, distribution and destiny of life in the universe.
Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, a biochemist who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for
Physiology or Medicine for identifying the hepatitis B virus, will
become the first director of the institute, which is seeking new
approaches to defining and studying life on Earth and elsewhere.
NASA's Administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, who made the announcement at
the agency's Ames Research Center in California, where the
institute's headquarters will be, said getting Dr. Blumberg to head
the effort showed the priority the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration was giving to finding "if there is a thread of life
Goldin said the institute, a consortium of experts and institutions
representing government, private industry and academia, was charged
with providing the "intellectual underpinnings" for building new
types of instruments and space probes for finding life in the solar
system and beyond.
The institute, which was formed last year, is intended to be an
organization "without walls," whose members do research at their own
institutions and communicate through television conferences and the
Internet. The organization, whose current 11 institutional members
include the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard
University, the University of Colorado and several NASA field
centers, started with a $10 million budget. Goldin said NASA had
proposed increasing financing to $25 million and hoped eventually to
support the effort with $50 million to $100 million a year.
Dr. Blumberg, who attended a news conference at Ames with Goldin,
said the institute would support a basic science program that
included many disciplines, including astronomy, biology, geology,
chemistry and physics, to search for life in new ways. The program
will not only look at ways to detect carbon-based life, as found on
Earth, but also to come up with ideas to find forms of life that are
"I'm really very excited and enthusiastic about taking part in this
program," said Dr. Blumberg, who is a professor of medicine and
anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior
researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Blumberg
said he would move to Ames in September.
Part of the institute's job, he said, would be to study life at its
extremes on Earth to help point out where similar forms of life might
exist elsewhere. Simple bacteria have been found in the hot mouths of
volcanoes and in subzero conditions in Antarctica, as well as near
mountaintops and two miles deep in underground rocks, experts say.
Understanding how these organisms adapt and evolve under such
conditions will help in developing space probes that might burrow
deep underground to find organisms on Mars, or submarine instruments
to explore possible seas under the icy crusts of Europa, a large moon
of Jupiter, Goldin said.