NASA CHIEF DAZES SOME ASTRONOMERS
IDEA FLOATED FOR TINY SPACESHIPS WITH DNA
By Peter Kendall
Tribune Staff Writer
June 04, 1999
Variously hissed and applauded, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin told astrophysicists concluding a conference in Chicago Thursday that the future of space exploration belongs not to physics, but to biology.
Delivering what was billed as a major address articulating the "vision" for NASA's future, Goldin sounded like Jules Verne as he told members of the American Astronomical Society that science must hybridize machines with living things to build better spaceships, telescopes and computers.
He spoke of Coke-can sized spaceships, programmed with DNA, that evolve into thinking machines as they ride on asteroids, feeding off them like ticks.
He talked of using the gravity of the sun to focus light from faraway worlds to make a "biomemetic"--or life-mimicking--telescope so powerful it could spy forest fires on planets in other solar systems.
The astronomers, at times downright hostile in their reception, showed that even they can have a limited appetite for pie in the sky.
"He's talking to the wrong audience," said Jeff Hester, an astronomer
from Arizona State University. "We were told we were a bunch of troglodytes, and it didn't sit well."
Goldin, who has led NASA since 1992, is widely credited with rescuing the agency with his "faster, better, cheaper" approach to space science. NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission, for example, cost one-tenth what the 1976 Mars Viking mission cost and was completed in one-third the time.
But he is also criticized for being something of a grandstander and for paying too much attention to politics.
Amid the critics, many others in attendance found the broad strokes of Thursday's address refreshing.
"You treat his speeches as you would read the Bible; they are parables,
not meant to be taken literally," said Michael Turner, a University of Chicago cosmologist. "What he was saying is that it is OK to dream, and that is good."
Goldin's most fanciful dream was of a small, parasitic spaceship launched onto a passing asteroid.
"Aboard the asteroid, the spacecraft will use a DNA-based biomemetic
system as a blueprint to evolve, adapt and grow into a more complex exploring and thinking system," Goldin said.
The spaceship, Goldin said, would feed off the asteroid like a parasite, using the rock's carbon and iron to build a nervous system and organs for communications.
When the asteroid neared its destination--another star--the spaceship would leap off its space rock "host" and start gathering astronomical data for researchers back on Earth.
"Such a spacecraft sounds like an ambitious dream," Goldin said, "but it
could be possible if we effectively utilize hybrid technologies."
Goldin also told the astronomers, some of whom have been dreaming up
ways to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope beyond 2010, to
"let it go."
The Hubble, a near debacle because of early technical glitches, has become an astonishingly powerful and beloved tool. Many at the convention have made their careers on studying the stream of images that reveal space secrets.
"Too many of you are hugging the Hubble Space Telescope," Goldin
After becoming boss at NASA, Goldin began pushing ahead with the Next Generation Space Telescope, an instrument that will be far more powerful than Hubble, though it will be built at a fraction of the cost.
"Given the budget constraints science and technology face, we need to be
willing to let go of old observatories when new technologies are ready for development," Goldin said.
Space science has become a race against the clock, Goldin said, because the aging of the Baby Boomers will put even more pressure on Congress to cut "discretionary" funding like NASA's.
"I can tell you," Goldin said, "that NASA cannot rely on an expanding
budget to pay for brute-force technological solutions to these scientific challenges."