NASA's Search For Life Still A New Hope

In science fiction, the galaxy teems with sentient life, like E.T., Klingons, Jedis, Wookies, you name it. In real life, the universe is a vast, cold and lifeless expanse. NASA has been looking for life beyond our planet for 50 years (no luck so far), but new methods bring new hope that that there's someone — or something — else out there. Host Scott Simon speaks with NASA scientist Dr. Pam Conrad on the 50th anniversary of the space agency's search for extraterrestrial life.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

In science fiction, the galaxy teems with sentient life - ETs, Klingons, Jedis, Wookies. But in real life - so far as we know - the universe beyond Earth is cold and lifeless. Well, NASA has been looking for life beyond our planet for 50 years now. So far no such luck. But new methods bring new hope that maybe we can find someone, or something, else out there.�

Dr. Pam Conrad is an astrobiologist with NASA. She joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. PAM CONRAD (NASA): My pleasure.

SIMON: So how do we, how do we look?

Dr. CONRAD: First we try to think about what life is. And it's a pretty daunting problem. We don't even have universal agreement on Earth about what earthly life is.

SIMON: It depends on what is is.

Dr. CONRAD: Exactly. But we certainly can look at the other materials that make up the Earth and say what life isn't.

SIMON: Well, I guess I have the impression that 50 years ago radio waves were important. We are now living in a time when we realize that radio waves may be the product of civilization for only a little over a century or so.

Dr. CONRAD: Well, I think that as our ability to ask questions about life in the universe becomes more mature, we begin to think more broadly. If life had to function in one type of environment or another that was not Earth-like, what would that look like?

SIMON: So do you think there's life out there?

Dr. CONRAD: I do. If you look at life as potentially a very complex inevitability, there's got to be more than one example.

SIMON: I mean, it occurs to me - and I say this as someone who saw and enjoyed the original Michael Rennie film, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" - if there's life out there and they come here, like you're one of the first people they want to find.

Dr. CONRAD: If life comes here, those explorers will be just as confused as we will be about where to go and how to look. Certainly, if they rolled up and said we'd like to talk to an astrobiologist, I think that would be great. But I think the opportunity exists for alien space explorer astrobiologists to miss us, just like it exists for us to miss them.

SIMON: Dr. Pam Conrad of NASA, astrobiologist, research space scientist, Mars Explorer and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...who put this in - empress of the universe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CONRAD: I put it in. In case we don't find life, I'll be looking for a new gig.

SIMON: Thanks so much.

Dr. CONRAD: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Galaxy Song")

MONTY PYTHON (Comedy Group): (Singing) The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding in all of the directions it can whizz. As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know, 12 million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is. So remember when you're feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth. And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space...

SIMON: This is NPR News.�

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