Last week, scientists addressed the Senate subcommittee on NASA with an interesting plea: continue funding America’s efforts to seek life beyond our planet. While the subject matter of the hearing itself extended to a number of scientific priorities experts contended were integral, a number of experts, including one from NASA itself, used the majority of their time to address a question the subcommittee chair Senator Ted Cruz asked point blank at the hearing’s onset: why should we be searching for life on other worlds?

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, first tried to address the question idealistically — offering a philosophical argument in favor of the pursuit:

I believe it’s one of the big questions of all of humanity. This is how great nations make a mark — it’s by what they do for their citizens but also how they move history forward. This will be one of those questions, if answered, that will be remembered forever, because it will be a leap in not only understanding more about nature but a leap in understanding ourselves at a level we’ve never had in the past.”

While that emphasis on the symbolic importance of the search for life beyond our planet may not have been the cost/benefit analysis the senator may have hoped for, it was echoed by a number of other speakers who indicated that it was the last great era of American space exploration that led to today’s slew of science leaders, educators, and practitioners. Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was the first to point out that today’s senior researchers largely “came of age” during the Apollo missions of the 1960s.

“Today, the equivalent of that is the search for life, and that public search and when we do discover it will inspire that next generation to go into technology,” she said. However, Seager did not leave the Senate panel with nothing but lofty idealism to work with. She was careful to also point out that any scientific endeavor aimed at exploring the unknown always results in a number of practical, tangible advances that can have reverberating benefits throughout a number of commercial and defense applications.

“It takes a ton of pure science research to come up with anything practical, things you could never invent if you set out to find something practical,” Seager said before using America’s constellation of GPS satellites now relied on globally for navigation as an example. What would ultimately become the global GPS apparatus began as merely an effort to track satellite locations in space. Seager’s efforts to ground the search for alien life in legitimacy and practical value soon became a theme in remarks made by subsequent speakers.

“When we try to do things that are really hard, like we did at the time of Apollo, when you push yourself to answer the really tough questions, that’s when you really push technology forward,” Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, testified. Prior to his current position, Stofan served as NASA’s chief scientist.

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“I would argue that when you push technology forward, you push your society forward, you push the economy forward. Thanks to decades of NASA spacecraft missions, we know how to take the next steps in the search for life at Europa, Enceladus and of course Mars, and eventually Titan.”

While Seager did acknowledge that some of the technology required for the hunt for life is still being developed, she also pointed out that, thanks to decades of advancements made by NASA, the United States is uniquely positioned to not only continue the search but to find conclusive evidence of life on another world sooner than some may think.

“Although we don’t have evidence for life beyond Earth, we are the first generation with the capability to find it,” Seager said.

Featured image: This false-color mosaic, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, reveals the differences in the composition of surface materials around hydrocarbon lakes at Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan is the only other place in the solar system that we know has stable liquid on its surface, though its lakes are made of liquid ethane and methane rather than liquid water. While there is one large lake and a few smaller ones near Titan’s south pole, almost all of Titan’s lakes appear near the moon’s north pole. | By NASA / Space Science Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons