SIFK 2020-2022 Postdoctoral Researcher Jordan Bimm studies the human and biological challenges of space exploration in the early Cold War. His research focuses include the selection and training of astronauts, the search for extraterrestrial life, and the making of knowledge about bodies in extreme environments. Bimm's historical work explores the dawn of the Space Age, highlighting the central role life sciences played in the development of American spaceflight, and how they continue to shape our understanding of our place in the universe.
Bimm’s current book project, Putting Mars in a Jar: The Military Origin of Astrobiology, explores the first scientific studies into the possibility of extraterrestrial life, not at NASA as is commonly assumed, but within an earlier project run by the United States Air Force in the 1950s. Drawing on research in USAF and NASA archives, Bimm traces the history of this nearly-forgotten military research program, which involved crafting environmental simulations of life on Mars, called “Mars Jars.” Bimm shows how these tiny military models of Mars were adopted by NASA scientists during the 1960s, and how they continue to frame our understanding of life beyond the Earth today.
The project highlights the Cold War military context in which Mars Jars, and indeed the field of astrobiology, first appeared—as part of a speculative Air Force plan to construct self-sustaining bases on the Moon and Mars. A deeper layer focuses on Hubertus Strughold, the controversial Air Force life scientist who invented the Mars Jar, and his former role as director of Luftwaffe Aviation Medicine Research during World War Two, a scientific community implicated in lethal human experiments. This new history prompts a critical reconsideration of the origin, tools, and goals of present-day astrobiology, centred on the question of “how should we treat extraterrestrial life?” Through Mars Jars we learn to see how small simulations actually contain grand visions framing human engagement with the cosmos. Bimm’s work on Putting Mars in a Jar was recently featured in The New York Times and awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship at the National Air and Space Museum.
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