Lamar Smith Causes Cognitive Dissonance By Getting NASA Back Into SETI

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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Live Science notes that tucked into the authorization bill that funds NASA is $10 million to “to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” “Technosignatures” can be said to include radio signals of the sort that alien civilizations might send out in the universe. NASA has not been involved in looking for signs of advanced alien civilizations since 1993, when funding was canceled at the behest of then Sen. Richard Bryan, (D-Nevada). The reaction to the potential revival of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI NASA funding has elicited jubilation in the scientific community and no little confusion.

The reason for the joy is obvious. SETI, even though the quest for alien civilizations seems esoteric, is a rigorous scientific discipline, with articles about it published in peer-reviewed journals. The cognitive dissonance stems from the accusation that the chair of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith, R-Texas who arranged for the funding, is a “climate denier” which means that he doubts that climate change is an existential threat. How can an opponent of science who comes from Texas, of all places, be an enthusiast of SETI?

In fact science has more often found enemies on the left than on the right in the higher levels of the federal government. This fact is especially true for SETI. While NASA had been involved in at a low level in the search for signals from aliens since the 1960s, its role had also been opposed by liberal politicians. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wisconsin, who waged a one-man, decades-long war on science, was especially outraged that NASA would help search for alien civilizations. Rep. Silvio Conte, a liberal Republican from Massachusetts, was also a fervent foe of SETI.

The end game for NASA’s involvement in SETI came in 1993 when the space agency had a small $12 million line item for the project in its budget. Bryan waged a successful campaign to zero out funding for SETI. Ever since, efforts to pick up signals from alien civilizations have been privately funded.

How did Bryan succeed? NASA’s history office explains that 1993 was a particularly tough time for the space agency. The Hubble Space Telescope was still suffering from the mirror flaw that would later be repaired by shuttle astronauts. The space station program was under constant threat of cancellation by its opponents in Congress. President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration had been cancelled by the Clinton administration. After fighting battles to rescue larger programs, NASA hardly had the time or political capital left to save something as small as SETI.

Then too, SETI was buffeted by “the giggle factor.” The opponents of the program adroitly associated it with UFOs and little green men, much to the disgust and aggravation of the scientific community.

The climate for space science in Congress is completely different in 2018 than it was 25 years ago. The House is busily passing a funding bill for NASA that is extremely generous at over $21 billion for the 2019 fiscal year. Lamar Smith is not the only space agency champion in Congress. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, is the moving force behind sending probes to look for alien life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose subcommittee oversees NASA, has passed legislation encouraging the commercial development of space. Indeed, the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was until last month a House member who pushed for a return to the moon with commercial partnerships.

In short, those media people who are obsessed by “climate denial,” a term that seems more suited for religion than science, should calm down and accept the money being shoveled toward space projects by Republican lawmakers.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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Mark Whittington