The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA was established on 29 July 1958. The new agency was to have a distinctly civilian orientation.
Not long after NASA was established in 1958, the agency began a broad-based effort to learn how to look for the presence – both ancient and current – of life beyond Earth. Joining the agency’s human and robotic space programs with an offshoot of biology has not always been an easy or accepted fit, especially since no actual samples of life have ever been found elsewhere.
The connection between space exploration and astrobiology (then called exobiology) was highlighted and given early legitimacy by molecular biologist-turned-exobiologist Joshua Lederberg. Even before NASA was formally established, he was reaching out to colleagues about the possibilities of finding life beyond Earth. He won the Nobel Prize (at age 33, for discoveries about the genetics of bacteria) the same year NASA was founded.
Position on MarsEdit
While the 1960s were defined within NASA primarily by the efforts to land humans on the Moon, all during that period the agency was also supporting a robust effort to prepare for a mission to Mars. Its core goal: To search for signatures of life beyond Earth.
That effort required substantial research into and inevitable debate about the nature of the “life” that the Viking landers would be looking for. What’s more, those in the biological fields became properly concerned about what microbial life the Viking landers might bring to Mars from Earth, and projecting further on extraterrestrial life that might some day be returned to our planet.
So while hunting for present or past life on Mars was a very popular idea, it opened a Pandora’s box of extremely difficult questions about the still-mysterious nature and origins of life. Nonetheless, the possibility of actually finding extraterrestrial life reached a fever pitch of excitement during the Viking landing in 1976. Many predicted that life would be found on Mars – including Carl Sagan, who looked forward to encountering, via Viking, visible, perhaps floating creatures.
But those predictions gave way to first images of a bleak and barren martian landscape, and then to negative but also confusing scientific conclusions about whether signs of life, or even of organic compounds, had been detected.
The experience was sufficiently sobering that the study of Mars took an abrupt backseat, and it would be decades before interest recovered. And while orbiters, landers, and rovers returned to Mars in the 1990s and 2000s, it wasn’t until the 2012 landing of Curiosity that another astrobiology (though not life detection) mission began.