National Journal reported today that the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has convened thirteen more hearings about deep-space exploration than climate change.
Wednesday's hearing concerned "Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe," where Seth Shostak -- the senior astronomer at the the SETI institute -- addressed the importance for continuing to search for extra-terrestrial life. He stressed the fact that "the universe is very fecund," and that the history of scientific discovery has taught humanity that it is neither special nor unique.
"It's very easy to make fun of this [search for extra-terrestrial life]," he said. "On the other hand, it would have been very easy to make fun of Ferdinand Magellan's idea to sail around the earth, or Captain Cook to map the South Pacific."
Republicans on the committee did find Shostak's claims "easy to make fun of," as when Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) asked him whether extra-terrestrial societies existed, but were screening Earth's attempts to contact them because "they've got their caller ID turned on or something."
Rep. Chris Collins (R-New York) then asked him "what everyone in the room wants to ask: Have you watched Ancient Aliens, and what do you think of that series?"
Shostak replied that he had been on that series, but only to debunk its premise. "Pyramids were built by Egyptians," he said, to which his co-panelist, Dan Werthimer -- the director of the SETI Research Center at UC Berkeley -- added, "UFOs have nothing to do with extraterrestrials."
The House Committee's disinterest in questions that were not centered on ideas gleaned from television shows and films is not new. Earlier this month, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) convened a hearing on "Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life 'Gravity,'" in which the committee "assess[ed] the key questions involved in space traffic management and what Congress may do to ensure the safety and security of the space environment."
The attention the Republican-led committee has paid to the "space environment" and extra-terrestrial life has led some critics to claim that it is more interested in debating the possibility of life on other planets than sustaining life on this one.
Its chair, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), wrote an editorial last year in the Washington Post in which he admitted that "[c]limate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively," but that "[c]ontrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science."
["An alien is waving, to offer a friendly greeting from outer space" on Shutterstock]