Though still a troubled agency in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is expanding its commitment to fulfilling one of its key job descriptions: the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos. The US space agency announced June 24 that a dozen new teams have been selected to become part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

"Basically, I think NASA has come around to recognizing why many people are interested in what NASA does, and that is [knowing] whether or not we are alone in the universe. To address this issue you need an intellectual base…and that's astrobiology," said Michael Meyer, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Since its inception in 1997, the NAI has been an experiment. A virtual institute conceived as a partnership between NASA, major US academic and government research teams, and an international cadre...

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