To understand the potential for life on other worlds, NASA's Astrobiology Institute builds a science community on this one.">
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In This Issue
From the APPEL Director—Project Management Trends and Future Reality
The Knowledge Notebook—On Not Going It Alone: No Organization Is an Island
Space Exploration in the 21st Century: Global Opportunities and Challenges
Interview with William Gerstenmaier
Sharing Knowledge About Knowledge
NextGen: Preparing for More Crowded Skies
Anatomy of a Mishap Investigation
Are We Alone? Answering This Question Is Not a Lone Venture
NASA Past and Future: A Personal Memoir
The Next Big Thing Is Small
Cities at Night: An Orbital Perspective
Petrobras and the Power of Stories
An image of a nebula is displayed on a hyperwall at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. (Click image for close-up) Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin/Estelle DodsonHow does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond? The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was founded in 1998 as part of NASA's long-term quest to explore these fundamental questions. The NAI is one of four elements of NASA's Astrobiology Program, which has its roots in the agency's Exobiology Program established in 1960.
This artist's concept illustrates the connection between life and space exploration,
both of which are key for astrobiology. Image Credit: NASA/Cheryse Triano
Former NAI Director Baruch Blumberg and members of the NAI Executive Council view an image of Mars on the NASA hyperwall at Ames Research Center. (Click image for close-up) Photo Credit: NASA/Wendy DolciThe NAI links national and global networks of astrobiologists through technology and a range of activities and funded programs. The Institute funds workshops and conference sessions, and it designed and operates the Astrobiology Program Web site for NASA Headquarters. It brings program news and activities together in one place online. Broad participation in NAI science is made possible through programs such as the Director's Discretionary Fund, which awards small grants each year for seeding new ideas; a Minority Institution Research Support program; and NAI focus groups that advance specific topics of community interest.
The Virtual Planetary Lab
How do you get fifty-five scientists with diverse science backgrounds from five countries and twenty-three organizations to work together? By posing questions that are so big that they force interdisciplinary collaboration, says Vikki Meadows, head of the NAI's Virtual Planetary Lab (VPL) team at the University of Washington. The major question that drives Vikki and her team is this: Were we to find a rocky world orbiting another star, how would we know if that planet could or did support life? To help answer this question, the VPL team constructs models that simulate the planet's interaction with its parent star, and the resulting environments and spectral signatures of Earth-like planets. These models help us understand what "the fingerprints" of life look like—so that we might recognize life on distant planets when we see it.
The VPL team draws together scientists from more than fifteen disciplines, from biometeorologists to stellar spectroscopists—there is some truth to the inside joke that "it takes a planet to model a planet." Team members live across the United States and in a handful of other countries, including Australia, Mexico, and France. They use a mix of videoconferences, teleconferences, Web sites, and online meeting tools and workspaces for communication and remote interactions. In-person meetings also play an important role.
Developing a large team that works well together takes time. The five-year duration of NAI grants (and VPL's selection in two separate competitions) has provided time for the team to gel and produce truly interdisciplinary research, and to attract and support a cadre of young researchers launching their astrobiology careers. The distributed nature of the team has encouraged its members to stay involved over the long term. Colleagues who no longer have a formal role still connect from far-flung places for team meetings and contribute to VPL research.
High-definition video- conferencing improves the experience, as facial expressions and body language that are key to effective communication are much more discernable.Videoconferencing in particular has seen much improvement since the late 1990s, when multipoint videoconferencing was fraught with problems and required racks of equipment. Today's videoconferencing solutions are reliable, much easier to use, and smaller; the NAI's highdefinition multipoint controller (used for conferences that connect more than a handful of sites) is jokingly referred to as "the pizza box" because of its size and shape. Even more importantly, modern multipoint controllers come with a Web interface that allows users to schedule and manage their own conferences. High-definition videoconferencing improves the experience, as facial expressions and body language that are key to effective communication are much more discernable.
Shadows of future astrobiologists. Photo Credit: NASAAstrobiology has caught on as a way for science educators worldwide to engage their learners. Spanning many disciplines, it can be applied in many types of classrooms and facilitates teaming and problem solving. It is especially relevant to middle school–integrated science courses, positively affecting a critical age group at risk of turning away from science. Incorporating the natural affinity kids have for space, "slime," and dinosaurs, astrobiology has the added appeal of "aliens."
Wendy Dolci is the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) associate director for operations and has been with the NAI for seven years. Previously, she was a mission director for airborne science operations at Ames Research Center. In her current position she is responsible for the Institute's technology infrastructure, including Web and collaborative tools.
Ed Goolish, deputy director of NAI, has been with the NAI since 2000. Prior to that he conducted research at Ames on the biological effects of gravity, contributed to the design and development of biological research facilities for the International Space Station, and was involved in several life-science space missions.
Carl Pilcher has been director of NAI since 2006. He was a professor of astronomy and planetary science at the University of Hawaii before moving to NASA Headquarters in 1988, where he held a number of management positions in human and robotic solar-system exploration and astronomical research.