About NAIAugust 11, 2014
Astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This interdisciplinary field requires a comprehensive, integrated understanding of biological, geological, planetary, and cosmic phenomena. Astrobiology encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and on planets around other stars; the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry or life on Solar System bodies such as Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Titan; and research into the origin, early evolution, and diversity of life on Earth. Astrobiologists address three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?
As part of a concerted effort to address this challenge, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established the NASA Astrobiology Institute in 1998 as an innovative way to develop the field of astrobiology and provide a scientific framework for flight missions. NAI is a virtual, distributed organization of competitively-selected teams that integrate astrobiology research and training programs in concert with the national and international science communities.
NAI’s mission is to:
- carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research;
- train the next generation of astrobiology researchers;
- provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions;
- explore new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research amongst widely-distributed investigators;
- support learners of all ages by implementing formal, informal, and higher education programming and public outreach
NAI’s teams are supported through cooperative agreements between NASA and the teams’ institutions; these agreements involve substantial contributions from both NASA and the team. The executive summaries from each team’s latest annual report describe their recent contributions to astrobiology research.
Currently, the NAI has 15 teams including ~840 researchers distributed across ~180 institutions. It also has 13 international partner organizations. The Director and a small staff at “NAI Central,” located at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, administer the Institute. Each team’s Principal Investigator, together with the NAI Director and Deputy Director, comprise the Executive Council. Its role is to consider matters of Institute-wide research, space mission activities, technological development, and external partnerships.
NASA Astrobiology Program
The NAI is one of four elements in the NASA Astrobiology Program. The others are the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program, established in 1959 to support research on pathways leading to and from the origin of life with a focus on determining the potential for life to exist elsewhere in the Universe; the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) Program, established in 2001 to support prototype instrument development for astrobiology flight investigations; and the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) Program, established in 2001 to support science-driven field campaigns to extreme environments aimed at developing techniques for the astrobiological exploration of other worlds in our Solar System. The scope of the NASA Astrobiology Program is defined by the Astrobiology Roadmap, most recently updated in 2008.
Community and collaboration are essential to achieving NAI’s mission and effectively addressing the questions of astrobiology. NAI is pioneering the use of collaborative tools for virtual communication—i.e., meetings and scientific data analysis across distance. NAI incorporates numerous elements toward these goals, including hosting Workshops Without Walls which draw together hundreds of researchers from around the globe for scientific exchange with no travel required, the Director’s Seminar Series brings the community together monthly via videoconference to share scientific progress; the Focus Groups mobilize expertise across the community on relevant topics; and the Newsletter provides the latest news about activities and opportunities. NAI also organizes Institute-wide workshops to facilitate collective discussion and planning for astrobiology research, and offers the Director’s Discretionary Fund to support collaborative projects. A special focus on the next generation of astrobiologists, exemplified by the NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and the Lewis and Clark Fund, has contributed to a vibrant, forward-thinking community.
During its first decade, NAI had many significant research accomplishments, as well as contributions to NASA missions. NAI was influential in defining the landing sites for the Mars Exploration Rovers, which ultimately provided evidence of past liquid water on the Martian surface. NAI scientists detected methane gas in the Martian atmosphere, implying that the planet is at least geologically alive, if not biologically as well. Here on Earth, NAI scientists have discovered an entire ecosystem of microorganisms 3km beneath the Earth’s surface, existing completely independently of the Sun. And NAI scientists have begun to characterize planets around other stars, detecting both water vapor and carbon dioxide in their atmospheres.
As NAI enters its second decade, its scientists continue to explore the limits of life on Earth, develop new ways to search for life elsewhere in the Universe, and advance our understanding of how life itself originated on our own planet.
Carl B. Pilcher, Interim Director
Dr. Carl B. Pilcher is the Interim Director of the NAI. He returned to the NAI on August 11, 2014, and is serving on a half-time basis while the selection of a permanent director is completed. Dr. Pilcher retired as Director of the NAI in early 2013, after seven years of leading the Institute.
Dr. Pilcher has had careers in both academia and NASA management. Prior to Directing the Institute he was the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology with overall management responsibility for NASA’s astrobiology program. His career began with bachelors and doctorate degrees in chemistry. He then held a faculty position at the Institute for Astronomy (and later the Department of Physics and Astronomy) at the University of Hawaii, then made the transition from academia to government as Science Director in the Office of Exploration. He moved to NASA’s Office of Space Science and Applications to lead scientific development for the new program. He has received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, numerous Group Achievement Awards, and an Ames Honor Award.
His transition to astrobiology was inspired by announcements, in 1995-96, of the first discoveries of planets around other stars and possible evidence of biological activity in the Martian meteorite ALH 84001. With training in microbiology, he assumed responsibility for astronomy-related astrobiology programs, including serving as Program Scientist for NASA’s Kepler mission to discover Earth-size planets around other stars and NASA’s participation in the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea. He moved from these responsibilities to overall management responsibility for the astrobiology program in early 2005, and then to his position as NAI Director in September 2006.
During Dr. Pilchers tenure as NAI Director, he facilitated numerous multi-disciplinary collaborations—within the Origins of Life research portfolio in particular, steered the Institute toward a more directly supportive role in spaceflight missions, and in general provided superb executive leadership. In addition to leading and coordinating a scientific community of ~1000 members, he deftly managed the administrative team at NAI “Central” at NASA Ames Research Center.
Dr. Edward Goolish, Deputy Director
Dr. Edward Goolish has been Deputy Director of the NAI since October of 2006. He served as the Acting NAI Director from February 1, 2013 to August 11, 2014. Prior to that Ed served the NAI in various capacities for six years as its Assistant Director for Research. Ed came to NASA Ames Research Center in 1994 to conduct research on the adaptation of aquatic vertebrate models to the microgravity environment of space. At the same time, he contributed to the design and development of biological research facilities for the International Space Station, and was involved in several life-science space missions including Neurolab and two flights of CEBAS, the Closed Equilibrated Biological Aquatic System.
Prior to coming to Ames, Ed held postdoctoral positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was the recipient of research fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council for his work on the adaptation of organisms to the extreme environment of the deep-sea, and on the mechanisms involved in the scaling of metabolism in animals. The author of more than 30 peer-reviewed publications in the area of physiological ecology and astrobiology, Ed was himself first introduced to NASA while at the University of Michigan through a NASA Research Fellowship investigating the response of aquatic models to a simulated microgravity.
Mike Gaunce, Associate Director for Operations
Mike Gaunce is the Associate Director for Operations in the NAI, responsible for the day-to-day technical and administrative management of the institute, and for coordinating the overall personnel, activities, and schedule of NAI operations. This includes the NAI web sites, communication and collaborative technology infrastructure, and the education and public outreach activities.
Prior to coming to the NAI, Mike worked in the ARMD Airspace Systems Program, supporting air traffic management research activities conducted at Ames. He has extensive project management and system engineering experience, and has led several Earth science airborne field campaigns, including deployments to Svalbard, Chile, Costa Rica, Alaska, Mexico, Panama, and the Cape Verde Islands. In the past, he has also supported science mission and launch operations for the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Space Shuttle.
Mike has worked for the U.S. Government for 30 years, the last 24 of which have been with NASA. He has received numerous awards and commendations over his career, including the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, a “Silver Snoopy” award, and over a dozen NASA Group Achievement Awards. Mike holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University.