Stumped By Earth, Congress Looks For Intelligent Life Elsewhere

The Congress that shut the government down ponders how we would talk to a planet of zebras

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NASA / Getty Images

In this handout image provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Earth's horizon and the moon can be seen from the International Space Station July 12, 2011 in space.

These days Capitol Hill creates more problems than it fixes. The most unproductive Congress in history can’t agree on traditionally bipartisan defense or farm bills, adopt a budget agreement except under tight deadline, or pass modest gun control reforms that the vast majority of the public professes to want. Compromise eludes it; outrage is the currency of choice. And so, vexed by the challenges of this world, Congress on Wednesday went in search of life elsewhere.

Inside a Rayburn building hearing room adorned with quotes from Proverbs (“Where there is no vision, the people perish”) and Tennyson (“For I dipped into the future, far as human/eyes could see/Saw the vision of the world and all the/wonder that would be), about 20 members of the House of Representatives dedicated a few hours Wednesday morning to pondering our place in the universe. Appearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, a trio of scientists briefed lawmakers on the status of the search for extraterrestrial life.

“This is the first time in human history that we have the technological reach to cross the great threshold,” said Dr. Sara Seager, a planetary science professor at MIT. “This search for finding life beyond Earth—it’s so revolutionary it will really change the way that we see our place in the cosmos.”

Seager urged the development of a technology known as direct imaging that could enhance scientists’ ability to find new, life-supporting planets within a few years. “It could be our greatest legacy,” she said. Dr. Steven Dick, the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, urged a mission to dig into the ice crust of Europa, a moon of Jupiter: “it’s less than a billion miles away.” The third member of the panel, NASA astrobiologist Mary Voytek, touted a plan to sample the plumes of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

Some members of the Congressional committee, however, remain stuck in this world, where budgets are strained and constituents are focused on mundane matters like the economy. There was little indication that the government will provide any more funding for finding life on other planets. But other lawmakers seemed to jump at the chance to spend a few hours pondering metaphysical questions.

“What if they found a place with all zebras?” committee Chairman Emeritus Ralph Hall (R-Texas) mused after the meeting. “How would we talk to them?”

Others jumped at the chance to question scientists about the dangers of catastrophic asteroids or the soaring temperatures at the time of the dinosaurs. Rarely in this Congress are there moments of childlike wonder, and members seemed to enjoy the break from partisan sniping.

“It’s fun to hear something and not to leave a hearing frustrated,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), “or like you want to throttle the other side.”