Field of Science

What a real astrobiologist at NASA has to say

I'm posting here a comment from Lynn Rothschild, a genuine astrobiologist at NASA (she's also at Brown):


Great job once again. However, between this and the recent arsenic paper fiasco I feel obliged to speak in defense of NASA. NASA is not a monolith but more like a large university with ten or so campuses. Richard Hoover is an engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, and not a biologist by training. In fact, there are professional microbiologists at Marshall conducting ISS monitoring but I don't believe they were in any way involved with this work. From what I can tell, all of Mr. Hoover's assertions about life in meteorites are in non-peer reviewed journals and that his awards are in engineering. His papers may not have been approved by the Agency prior to release, and even if so, there is no guarantee that they were reviewed by biologists, micropaleontologists, or other relevant professionals.

In contrast, the arsenic paper was not authored by NASA scientists at all but rather was supported by NASA funding, a distinction not made in most press reports. The specific conclusion of the paper is not an official NASA position that we have all bought into. We are not told to give a party line on any scientific discovery just as presumably you are not by your institution.

Bottom line: there ARE many distinguished scientists at NASA, including some microbiologists, one or two evolutionary biologists, geologists, and astrobiologists. But I for one would prefer to go the traditional peer-review route rather than science by weekend blogs. I may not go viral that way, but in the long run, it is the right way to conduct science. So please, don't tar all of us with the same brush as you would hope others would not besmirch your reputation because of the papers of others in your institution.

But that begs the question of why all the excitement and passion with this particular story? Because the the search for life elsewhere is one of THE most compelling questions in biology, and surely the discovery of extra-terrestrial life will revolutionize our understanding of the origin and evolution of life. Of course a few well-placed stories (again note by non-biologists or geologists) and twitters on Friday night is really what made this story go viral.


  1. Just wanted to raise a question about your assertion that Hoover isn't a biologist, but an engineer.

    This NASA press release identifies Hoover as a "NASA astrobiologist":

  2. You can be an engineer and an astrobiologist. Astrobiology is a very interdisciplinary field, it hosts physicists, chemists, biologists and yes, engineers.

  3. "Richard Hoover is an engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, and not a biologist by training."

    In this NASA article from 2003 about microbes in the Mono Lake in California, Hoover is presented as a NASA astrobiologist:

    "Astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA's National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Alabama (...)"

    That is at least how it sounds to me.

    He has also done an unusual amount of research on extremophiles, for an engineer.

  4. Does anybody realize what it would mean if this sort of thing is actually real? It would mean that not only was this planet "fortunate" enough to be just right for life to develop, but that a rock that also contains life flew through the vastness of space and happened to land in the same exact spot! Just consider for a second that when entire galaxies collide, it is rare that stars collide because there is so much space between them.

  5. NASA has confirmed that Hoover is not a biologist, has been trying to publish this stuff since 1997, did not submit his work to either internal or external review and the samples are heavily contaminated by terrestrial microbes (to say nothing of the assertions he makes).

    So I think it's time to stop trying to defend his "data".

  6. Athena - did you read the previous comments?ScienceFan and Anna both identified previously-published NASA mentions of Hoover as a NASA astrobiologist.

    This NASA press release, from 2009, identifies Hoover as a "NASA astrobiologist": ttp://

    This NASA article, from 2003, also identifies Hoover as an astrobiologist ("Astrobiologist Richard Hoover of NASA's National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Alabama...")

    Why can't we stick to discussing the evidence here? Let's not shoot the messenger! I'll give my take here:

    1) Given that the meteorite hit 150 years ago, are the filaments >150 years old? The lack of nitrogen apparently implies that they're older then that.

    2) Do these filaments structurally resemble terrestrial contaminants? That the filaments are big and not in a colony apparently implies that they do not.

    3) Do these filaments chemically resemble terrestrial contaminants? The high sulfur and magnesium content apparently implies that they do not.


  7. Sayke, I suggest you read yesterday's NASA official response to questions about Hoover's credentials and specialization. In this case, the venues are directly relevant to the credibility of the paper, in addition to the appalling lack of quality in the work itself.

    I left a longer note in Rosie's previous entry and won't reprise it in this thread.

  8. Why the totally inappropriate witch hunt, and seeming reprehensible behavior by some in NASA? Did we learn nothing from the machinations of Climategate?

    I believe the paper did undergo the usual NASA clearance (1676), not that that means scrutiny by some ultimate multi-disciplinary authority anymore than any other NASA cleared paper.

    "The paper" was not rejected by "prestigious journals". (A different, longer paper on the same topic was sent back for revision about two years ago and not resubmitted.

    I understand that the JOC shortcircuited any peer review it might have due to media interest. (I have my suspicions about the stirring up of media interest but do not believe Hoover was responsible for this.)

    Hoover did not approach Fox News. A Fox News reporter got his mobile number from someone in NASA Huntsville and caught him at a Science fair he was judging.

    Can one of the "experts" tell me whether the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology is reputable, or is it now questionable because in the last few years it published a number of papers from Hoover's group?


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