Thesis ID: CBB684396859

Reviving the Search for Life: Astrobiology, NASA, and the Politics of Science in the Late Twentieth-Century United States (2022)


Doel, Ronald E. (Advisor)
Varga, Ian J. (Author)

Doel, Ronald E.
Florida State University
Publication date: 2022
Language: English

Publication Date: 2022
Physical Details: 280

This dissertation describes the political origins and history of the scientific field of astrobiology, a discipline founded by NASA in the mid-1990s and whose practitioners search for and study extraterrestrial life and its potential evolution and origins. It argues that, despite the claims of scientists and past historians that astrobiology formed primarily because of new scientific developments, the field and the subsequent institution NASA created, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), were political products representative of changes in the relationship between space science and the American federal government in the 1990s. According to this dissertation, I argue astrobiology was a neoliberal science, born in an era in which the federal government expected sciences it funded to focus on the effect deficit cutting, balancing the federal budget, and connections with private industries. This political dynamic differed from the Cold War period when the government invested heavily in NASA to produce science and technology for national defense or competition with the Soviet Union. This emphasis on of neoliberal and fiscal and budgetary politics contrasts with how scholars have described NASA or astrobiology before. Overall, the dissertation asserts that astrobiology, while a singular example, is indicative of the differences in American scientific patronage and NASA’s national identity from the Cold War to the post-Cold War era. More specifically, astrobiology also reflected the constant financial, political battles NASA had faced since the 1970s when the agency tried to establish long-lasting relevance after the Apollo program. With Congress and the White House in the 1990s insisting the agency downsize or face potential closures and privatization, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin attempted to reinvent the agency and reassert its commitment to basic but cost-effective scientific research, including on extraterrestrial life. NAI was thus an instrument to appease the federal government and advance NASA’s larger goal of stabilizing its funding. In terms of research, the project employs a mixture of NASA archival resources at the NASA History Office in Washington, DC, and NASA Ames History Archives in Mountain View, California, as well as published primary and secondary sources. It also uses a series of oral histories I conducted with relevant astrobiologists.

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Authors & Contributors
Alcañiz, Isabella
Anadon, Laura Diaz
Berman, Elizabeth Popp
Brown, Mark B.
Butrica, Andrew J.
Charrow, Robert P.
Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy
Public Understanding of Science
American Scientist
American Studies
Latin American Research Review
Social Studies of Science
George Washington University
Franz Steiner Verlag
Harvard University Asia Center
Oxford University Press
Princeton University Press
University of Arizona Press
Science and politics
Government sponsored science
Funding and finance
Science and economics
Science and government
Research support
Reagan, Ronald
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century
19th century
20th century, early
United States
California (U.S.)
United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (U.S.)
Rossiiskaia Akademiia Nauk
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Public universities and colleges

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