Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

NASA’s Crowdsourced Search for Planetary Habitats

NASA Goddard announced on January 30th that it’s sponsoring a new project and website, Disk Detective, which allows people to discover “embryonic planetary systems” hidden in the data generated by NASA’s Wide-field infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The data mining and analysis effort is NASA’s largest ever crowdsourcing project, and the agency says its main goal is to produce publishable scientific results.

“Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope,” said James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

WISE was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. From a perch in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011. It took detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects, representing the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

WISE was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed, but was reactivated in September 2013, renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), and given a new mission, to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.

Developed alongside Zooniverse, a network of scientists, software developers, and educators, the project will make sifting through the astronomical data easier. From 2010 to 2011 WISE, which is locked in Earth orbit, scanned the entire sky in infrared, measuring some 745 million objects in detail. NASA is in the process of searching through this data for planets that form and grow in “dust-rich circumstellar disks,” which shine brightly in infrared wavelengths.

The problem is that other objects, such as galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids, also shine in infrared. This infrared noise makes it difficult to identify planet-forming environments – Young Stellar Object disks (gaseous and less than 5 million years old), and debris disks, which are 5 million years or older and contain little to no gas. The former are found in or near young star clusters, while the latter contains “belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts” found in our solar system.

To deal with this problem, Disk Detective takes images from WISE and other sky surveys (the James Webb Telescope will contribute data in the future) and converts them to brief animations the website calls flip books. Volunteers then classify objects according to specific but simplecriteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. Working on this cataloged image analysis, astronomers will then decide which objects deserve greater attention.

Herbig-Haro 30

Herbig-Haro 30 is the prototype of a gas-rich young stellar object disk. The dark disk spans 40 billion miles in this image, cutting the bright nebula in two and blocking the central star from direct view. Volunteers can help astronomers find more disks like this through [Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Burrows (STScI)]

For more information, you can watch the NASA | Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats video, and this Hubble Space Telescope Google hangout.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Note: this article first appeared on Starship Reckless.

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA. Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13:

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

“Arsenic” Life, or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Note: This article was originally posted at Starship Reckless.

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic archaea that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

– The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
– There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
– There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)

Landing on Other Planets: Seven Minutes of Terror

In less than a month, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will land on Mars. But to just nonchalantly say “it will land on Mars” overlooks just how hard it is to land on another planet, especially one with an atmosphere. In science fiction, it’s commonplace to see ships land on planets like it’s no big deal, so I thought it would be worth taking a look at what NASA has to do to land MSL safely on Mars next month.

MSL launched on the day after Thanksgiving in November of last year and it has been drifting through space on a collision course with Mars since then. The spacecraft will hit the top of the martian atmosphere at around 8000 miles per hour, and it has to walk a fine line as it slows down and descends to the surface. Slow down too fast and you burn up in the atmosphere. Slow down too slowly… well, then you’re just another crater.

And it’s not just a matter of killing all that excess speed safely. You also want some control over where you end up on the surface. MSL has the most precise landing system ever used for a Mars mission, allowing us to drop the rover into the floor of Gale Crater at the base of an 18,000 ft tall mountain of layered rocks. To do this, MSL actually can steer itself as it is hurtling through the upper atmosphere. Early in the descent, the capsule drops a couple of tungsten bricks, offsetting the center of mass. This shifted center of mass means that the capsule is tilted so that it actually generates lift as it decelerates. Computer controlled jets fire to adjust the trajectory, giving us pinpoint landing capabilities.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Once the capsule has slowed down to a mere 1000 mph, it is no longer in danger of burning up, so it gets rid of the heat shield and releases a supersonic parachute. This parachute claws at the thin atmosphere and slows the rover down to a few hundred miles per hour.

For previous missions, once the parachute brought the rover close enough to the surface, the rover would disconnect from the parachute and inflate a tetrahedron of giant airbags, allowing it to bounce and roll to a stop. (If you ever had to do an egg-drop project in physics class, it’s like that, but the egg costs hundreds of millions of dollars and if it breaks you will have destroyed a decade’s worth of work by more than a thousand people.)

MSL is too heavy to land on airbags, so the engineers decided to use rockets. The problem is, rockets kick up dust, which can damage the rover’s delicate moving parts and scientific instruments. The solution? Wear the rockets like a jetpack, and then lower to rover on a winch when it gets close enough to the ground.

When the wheels finally touch down, explosive bolts cut the bridle and the jetpack blasts away to crash safely in the distance.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

All of this takes about 7 minutes. Mars will be about 14 light-minutes away, so the rover’s computer does it all on its own. All of us on the mission will just be watching helplessly. They call it the “seven minutes of terror”:

So, next time you are watching or reading (or writing) science fiction, spare a moment to consider: How are the spacecraft going to solve the problem that NASA’s engineers had to solve for MSL? What are the requirements for the landing? Does it have to be precise, or do they just need to get down safely? How fast is the ship going? How is it going to kill off all of that kinetic energy without killing off the crew? Is it safe for the propulsion system to kick up dust and contaminate the surface, or is a bit more creativity called for? And then, if the ship is like most in science fiction, how is it going to do all of that again and again as it hops from planet to planet? Does it need its heat shield replaced every time? What about parachutes? Fuel?

There’s a reason all Mars missions so far have been one-way trips. It’s hard enough to survive the seven minutes of terror once. Launching from the surface and surviving it again when returning to Earth is not possible. Yet.


Battlestar Galactica burns as it enters the atmosphere.



The Agency That Cried “Awesome!”

Note: This is the second of two articles in which I discuss the NASA “arsenic bacterium” debacle. The previous one is Arsenic and Odd Lace.

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” – Anonymous ancient proverb

In the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Greek resistance fighters and Allied demolition experts set out to destroy a nest of large cannons so that a rescue convoy can go through the straits the guns overlook. A young Greek who’s part of the mission goes after a group of Germans gunslinger-style, jeopardizing the venture. The Germans cut him to ribbons. When the mission members meet at their rendezvous point, his sister María (Iríni Pappás) says to his partner Andréas (Anthony Quinn, obligatory at that time whenever swarthy ethnics were required): “Tell me what happened.” Andréas replies: “He forgot why we came.”

María tries to keep her brother focused on the mission.

Last week, NASA administrators forgot why we came. They forgot the agency’s mission, they forgot science, they forgot their responsibility to their own people and to the public. Instead, they apparently decided that all publicity is good, as long as they don’t misspell your name.

Ever since I became fully conscious, I’ve dreamed of humanity exploring the stars. These dreams were part of the reason I left my culture, my country, my family and came over here, determined to do research. Every launch made my heart leap. I wept when I saw the images sent by the Voyagers, Sojourner negotiating Martian rocks. I kept thinking that perhaps in my lifetime we might find an unambiguous independent life sample. Then, at long last, astrobiology would lift off and whole new scientific domains would unfurl and soar with it.

Instead of that, last week we got bacterial isolate GFAJ-1. We got an agency which appears so desperate that it shoved experiments with inadequate controls into a high profile journal and then shouted from the rooftops that its researchers had discovered a new form of life (de facto false, even if the results of the increasingly beleaguered Science paper stand).

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier. Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way. And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted. Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.

Let’s investigate a major claim in the Science paper: that GFAJ-1 bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, making them novel, unique, a paradigm shift. Others have discussed the instability of the arsenate intermediates and of any resulting backbone. Three more points are crucial:

1. This uniqueness (not yet proved) has come about by non-stop selection pressure in the laboratory, not by intrinsic biochemistry: the parent bacterium in its normal environment uses garden-variety pathways and reverts to them as soon as the pressure is lifted. This makes the “novel life” claim patently incorrect and the isolate no more exotic than the various metallophores and metallovores that many groups in that domain (Penny Boston, Ken Nealson) have been studying for decades.

2. The arsenic-for-phosphorus substitution in the DNA is circumstantial at best. The paper contained no sequencing, no autoradiography, no cesium chloride density gradients. These are low-tech routine methods that nevertheless would give far more direct support to the authors’ claims. Density gradients are what Meselson and Stahl used in 1958 to demonstrate that DNA replication was semi-conservative. Instead, Wolfe-Simon et al. used highly complex techniques that gave inconclusive answers.

The Meselson and Stahl experiment

The reagents for the methods I just listed would cost less than $1,000 (total, not each). A round of sequencing costs $10 – the price of a Starbucks latte. In a subsequent interview, Oremland (the paper’s senior author) said that they did not have enough money to do more experiments. This is like saying that you hired the Good Year blimp to take you downtown but didn’t have enough money for a taxi back home.

3. Even if some of the bacteria incorporate arsenic in their DNA, it means nothing if they cannot propagate. Essentially, they can linger as poison-filled zombies that will nonetheless register as “alive” through such tests as culture turbidity and even sluggish metabolism.

NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”. This is called leading with your chin. And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary. The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded. It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Peer review is like democracy: it’s the worst method, except for all others. It cannot avoid agendas, vendettas, pet theories or hierarchies. But at least it does attempt judgment by one’s peers. Given the kernel of this paper, its reviewers should have been gathered from several disciplines. I count at least four: a microbiologist with expertise in extremophiles, a molecular biologist specializing in nucleic acids, a biochemist studying protein and/or lipid metabolism and a biophysicist versed in crystallography and spectrometry.

Some journals have started to name reviewers; Science does not, and “astrobiology” is a murky domain. If the scientific community discovers that the reviewers for the GFAJ-1 paper were physicists who write sciency SF and had put on the astrobio hat for amusement and/or convenience, Lake Mono will look mild and hospitable compared to the climate that such news will create.

Because of the way scientific publishing works, a lot of shaky papers appear that never get corrected or retracted. As a dodge, authors routinely state that “more needs to be done to definitively prove X.” Even if later findings of other labs completely contradict their conclusions, they can argue that the experiments were correct, if not their interpretation. Colleagues within each narrow domain know these papers and/or labs – and quietly discount them. But if such results get media attention (which NASA courted for this paper), the damage is irreversible.

People will argue that science is self-correcting. This is true in the long run – and as long as science is given money to conduct research. However, the publication of that paper in Science was a very public slap in the face of scientists who take time and effort to test their theories. NASA’s contempt for the scientific process (and for basic intelligence) during this jaw-dropping spectacle was palpable. It blatantly endorsed perceived “sexiness” and fast returns at the expense of careful experimentation. This is the equivalent of rewarding the mindset and habits of hedge fund managers who walk away with other people’s lifelong savings.

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income). It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology. And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

Quiros circus, Spain 2007

Perhaps NASA’s administrators were under pressure to deliver something, anything to stave off further decrease of already tight funds. I understand their position – and even more, that of their scientists. NIH and NSF are in the same tightening vise, and the US has lost several generations of working scientists in the last two decades. Everyone is looking for brass rings because it’s Winner Take All – and “all” is pennies. We have become beggars scrambling for coins tossed out of rich people’s carriages, buskers and dancing bears, lobsters in a slowly heating pot.

NASA should not have to resort to circus acts as the price for doing science. It’s in such circumstances that violence is done to process, to rigor, to integrity. We are human. We have mortgages and doctors’ bills and children to send to college, yes. But we are scientists, first and foremost. We are – must be – more than court jesters or technicians for the powerful. If we don’t hold the line, no one else will.

The paper: Wolfe-Simon F, Blum JS, Kulp TR, Gordon GW, Hoeft SE, Pett-Ridge J, Stolz JF, Webb SM, Weber PK, Davies PCW, Anbar AD, Oremland RS (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. DOI: 10.1126/science.1197258.