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INFINITE POSSIBILITIES

The head of NASA says life probably exists outside Earth

NASA administrator Bill Nelson speaks against a backdrop photo of Earth
Reuters/Al Drago
“Are there other planet Earths out there?" NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. "I certainly think so, because the universe is so big."
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published

The head of NASA suspects that we are not alone in the universe—or multi-universes, for that matter.

Bill Nelson, who was sworn in as NASA administrator in May, sounded remarkably open-minded about the possibility of extraterrestrial life during an interview with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics last week.

“My personal opinion is that the universe is so big, and now, there are even theories that there might be other universes. If that’s the case, who am I to say that planet Earth is the only location of a life form that is civilized and organized like ours?” Nelson told Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at UVA. He continued: “Are there other planet Earths out there? I certainly think so, because the universe is so big.”

Are UFO sightings signs of extraterrestrial life?

Nelson, a Democrat, has advocated for space programs throughout his Congressional career, first as a Florida House representative and then as a senator. He even traveled to space himself aboard the Columbia shuttle in 1986.

During his conversation with Sabato, Nelson emphasized the search for extraterrestrial life as a part of NASA’s explorations, and said that Navy pilots have reported more than 300 sightings of unidentified flying objects since 2004. He continued:

“And they don’t know what it is, and we don’t know what it is. We hope it’s not an adversary here on Earth that has that kind of technology. But it’s something. And so, this is a mission that we’re constantly looking — what, who is out there? Who are we? How did we get here? How did we become as we are? How did we develop? How did we civilize? And are those same conditions out there in a universe that has billions of other suns in billions of other galaxies — it’s so large I can’t conceive it.”

The US government in recent years has become increasingly forthright about pilots’ encounters with UFOs, though it has been careful not to suggest that these sightings are proof of alien life. A Pentagon report, released in June, did not reach conclusions about the provenance of the sightings, keeping a number of other possible explanations—such as the idea that the UFOs are in fact advanced technologies from countries like Russia or China, or that they are simply the result of natural phenomenon messing with the military planes’ sensors—in play.

Looking for extraterrestrial life is “part of NASA’s mission”

Nelson, too, doesn’t claim to have any definitive explanations. But it’s certainly noteworthy that the leader of the US space agency is both receptive to the idea that life may exist beyond Earth and invested in the idea of NASA trying to uncover answers. “What do you think we’re doing on Mars? We’re looking for life. This is a part of NASA’s mission,” he said.

At the same time, Nelson said that the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe only underscores the importance of taking care of our home planet.

“I’ll tell you what that makes me think. I’d better be a better steward of what we have, because we’re messing it up, and we’re messing it up just the way we’re treating each other,” he said. “So I know what my mission is, to be a better steward of this planet and be a better citizen of planet Earth.”

You can watch Nelson’s complete interview in the YouTube video below, with his comments on extraterrestrial life starting around the 53:17 mark.

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