Thesis ID: CBB867761351

Evidencing Life: Thresholds of Biology and Scientific Operations Beyond Earth (2023)


Astrobiology seeks to understand the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. My dissertation analyzes the strategies astrobiologists at NASA utilize as they grapple with the challenges of searching for evidence of life in outer space. My research is set in the United States, from the 1950s to the present, as it unfolds across NASA centers, academic institutions, commercial industries, and human and nonhuman communities. Despite the possibility that no other life(s) exist beyond Earth, I argue that astrobiology’s efforts to make biological frameworks that could be accountable on an interplanetary scale is a site to understand processes of scientific formation. This dissertation is informed by over two years of ethnographic fieldwork as an affiliate of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA and of archival research at NASA Headquarters as well as the Library of Congress. Focusing on how science (as method, knowing's, and praxis) emerges as astrobiological work, I probe understandings of the relationship between biology and the environment, temporality, and the role of speculation and creativity in field, laboratory and mission work. This allows me to interrogate the evidentiary capacity of astrobiology as a science and what it can claim to know despite profound uncertainty about the parameters of biology. Together, my analyses evince what stands in excess of astrobiology as a science, analogous to that as-yet-ineffable quality of life that is in excess of complex chemistry. Overarchingly, I situate my work in an interdisciplinary constellation of scholarship, in the anthropology of outer space, science and technology studies, multispecies studies, and environmental anthropology.

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Authors & Contributors
Dick, Steven J.
Macauley, W R
Strick, James E.
Bimm, Jordan
Doel, Ronald E.
Farquhar, Robert W.
American Scientist
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Journal of the History of Biology
Science as Culture
Social Studies of Science
CRC Press
Florida State University
I. B. Tauris
Johns Hopkins University Press
MIT Press
Extraterrestrial life; exobiology
Space research and exploration
Extrasolar planets; exoplanets
Space travel; space flight
Farquhar, Robert W.
Lederberg, Joshua
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century
19th century
Early modern
United States
West Virginia (U.S.)
United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (U.S.)
Project Voyager
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) (Study group: U.S.)

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