An Exciting Return to the Unknown
Planetary science is back.
After many years of struggle and difficult budgets that threatened America’s pre-eminence in planetary science, Congress is poised once again to make a major investment in exploring our universe and beyond.
During the worst of the Great Recession, many parts of the NASA budget took a significant hit. This was to be expected; domestic spending had to be reduced and NASA would have to share the pain. But for reasons unrelated to the nation’s overall financial difficulties, planetary science faced the most draconian cuts of all – an oddly disproportionate sacrifice from perhaps the most successful part of NASA’s portfolio.
Why planetary science was singled out in this way is not clear. The Administration and NASA have always said the right things about the Mars program and other robotic missions, but the budget they have submitted to Congress over the last several years told a different story.
Funding for the Mars program, perhaps planetary science’s most stunning achievement, was cut by hundreds of millions of dollars and its future put in doubt.
NASA considered not only canceling future missions to Mars to bring back a sample from that red planet – the science community’s highest priority – but turning off the power to existing rovers like Spirit which continue to roam the surface and send back valuable science more than a decade after its 90 day intended life span. With all the time, money and effort it took to land that craft and others on the forbidding surface of Mars, to even consider such a course demonstrates the low priority in which planetary science had been placed.
John Kennedy’s vision of going to the moon and beyond not because it was easy but because it was hard, and because that goal would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” was replaced with an America’s-best-days-are-behind-it philosophy of “no more flagship missions.”
But two weeks ago, in the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee on which I serve, we passed an annual funding bill that represents a giant leap forward for planetary science. The bill provides a hundred million dollars for a Mars 2020 mission that will pave the way for a sample return. It also invests a like amount in an exciting new mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. And importantly, it instructs NASA to abandon the self-defeating principle of “no new flagship missions” which would constrain us to a future defined more by its limits than its limitless potential.
In our part of Los Angeles, no one needs to be told of the wonders of space science and exploration. Home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge and the many thousands of its brilliant scientists and engineers, we bask in the glow of Cassini’s new discoveries, Hubble’s amazing images and the improbable (impossible really) success of Curiuosity’s sky crane. We marvel at fascinating new evidence of an underground sea on Europa, maybe even an ocean, with all the potential of life that comes with such a large body of water.
We also recognize that without these new missions our ability to attract another generation of American students to choose scientific and technical careers will be seriously undermined. Profoundly important research and development and all the economic benefits it brings will be lost. And America would step back from its place of pre-eminence in planetary science, with Russia, China and Europe leading the new voyage of discovery into space.
President Kennedy gazed upward and spoke of America’s passion for the unknown, the unfinished and the unanswered. The exploration of space, he said, was “one of the great adventures of all time.” How fortunate we are that so many of the nation’s leaders in this great adventure are our friends and neighbors, and that America is once again setting its sights on the heavens.
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) represents the 28th Congressional District, including the communities of Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Los Feliz, Montrose, Shadow Hills, Sunland and Tujunga.