About NAIJuly 7, 2015
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 12 teams including ~600 researchers distributed across ~100 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, administers 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 six 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 other four elements, Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research, MatiSSE, PICASSO and the Habitable Worlds Program, are the result of a restructure to the Astrobiology Program in 2014. The scope of the NASA Astrobiology Program is defined by the 2008 Astrobiology Roadmap and in the Astrobiology Strategy released in 2016.
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.
Dr. Penelope “Penny” Boston, Director
Dr. Penny Boston is the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), at NASA Ames, Moffett Field. She leads the scientific activities of the institute’s member teams and all operational aspects of the organization. Her appointment was effective May 31, 2016.
“Dr. Boston is a leading astrobiologist and science explorer with a proven track record of leadership. I’m energized by her passion for NASA’s mission to seek signs of life in the solar system and beyond,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and recently retired associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It’s an incredible time for all science, and especially astrobiology, as our current and future missions edge closer to answering the question: Are we alone?”
Penny leads the NAI in fulfilling its mission to perform, support, and catalyze collaborative interdisciplinary astrobiology research; train the next generation of astrobiologists; provide scientific and technical leadership for astrobiology space mission investigations; and develop new information technology approaches for collaborations among widely distributed investigators.
“The search for life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond is one of the great intellectual enterprises of our species,” said Penny. “The deeper understanding of the profound biodiversity and adaptability of life here on our own planet is part of the same continuum. I’ve devoted my career to these areas of science, and I’m delighted to now contribute to the field in this new leadership capacity.”
Prior to joining NASA, Penny, in 2002, founded and directed the Cave and Karst Studies Program at New Mexico Tech, Socorro, New Mexico, where she also served as a professor and led their Earth and environmental sciences department as chair. She also served from 2002 to 2016 as associate director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, a congressionally mandated institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico. She holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Penny replaces Carl Pilcher, former NAI director who retired in early 2013, after leading the institute for seven years, before returning in August 2014 on a part-time basis to serve as interim director. In addition to leading and coordinating a scientific community of more than 1,000 members, Carl managed the administrative team at NAI’s central office at NASA Ames.
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.