How Exploring Space Led A Top NASA Scientist To Worry About Earth’s Climate Change

Exploring new stretches of the galaxy brought NASA scientist William Borucki back to Earth.

Borucki, 76, retired in July as the principal investigator of NASA’s Kepler Mission, an unmanned spacecraft that has been surveying a portion of the Milky Way for habitable planets since March 2009. The mission has discovered more than 1,000 confirmed planets and inspired many to think about what, if any, life is out there.

But Borucki said it also made him reconsider life on Earth — and its fate in light of climate change.

“The Earth is a very special place,” Borucki said in an interview with The Huffington Post last week. “Unless we have the wisdom and technology to protect our biosphere, it could become like many other dead worlds.”

Borucki, who began his career at NASA in 1962 working on the Apollo mission, was awarded the prestigious Shaw Prize for Astronomy on Wednesday in Hong Kong. He is giving a $100,000 portion of his prize money to the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists to help with climate work.

“There must be an enormous number of small planets roughly Earth size, in the habitable zone of the stars — billions or tens of billions of such planets,” said Borucki. If there were life there, one would assume it would evolve into organisms of higher intelligence capable of communication. Yet we haven’t heard from them, and there’s no evidence of other life forms visiting Earth. Borucki said that forces us to ask why not.

“It’s not a silly question anymore,” he said. “You used to be able to dismiss it — say there aren’t any planets, or they aren’t in the habitable zone. That’s not true anymore. We know there are habitable planets. The question that is really important is what happened to them?”

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