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The True Opportunity of Space Exploration


When the Opportunity rover first landed on Mars in 2004 it was slated for a 90-day exploration mission to examine whether the surface rocks and soil held clues to the past presence of water and the building blocks of life. And while we hoped that the rover would outlast its original mission, we never dreamed that Opportunity would still be functioning more than 14 years later.

But this month, we are all watching “the little rover that could” in hopes that its historic mission isn’t over yet. Opportunity has recently gone into “low-power” mode as a dust storm ravages the Red Planet and obscures the rover from scientists’ view just as it was exploring one of the most interesting locations on its pathway, Perseverance Valley. Swirling dust prevents Opportunity’s cameras from capturing footage of the Valley, which was possibly carved by water billions of years ago in the Gale Crater, and could hold important clues about Mars’ past.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, and we discussed the impressive work underway at NASA and JPL. NASA’s focus on research and discovery is refreshing and welcome, and a unifying force for our country and the world.

Beyond the Mars Opportunity mission, we discussed the Mars 2020 rover mission, which is the next step in exploring the Red Planet and the most ambitious Mars mission NASA has ever undertaken. It might seem like science fiction, but the Mars helicopter plans to soar over the rocky ground scouting for an accompanying rover, and ultimately help its partner navigate difficult terrain and access parts of Mars that are unreachable by ground. The rover will also be able to drill directly into the planet’s surface and collect samples of rock and soil. Sealed in tubes, these samples will be left on the planet’s surface, retrieved by a future Mars mission and sent back to Earth, the only way to exhaustively study the samples.

JPL is also developing a groundbreaking mission to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Set to launch in 2022, this probe will help us determine if the icy moon could even harbor life in the ocean beneath its desolate surface.

During our meeting, Administrator Bridenstine and I also discussed the challenges NASA faces here on Earth, including funding for astrophysics and earth science, both major missions housed at JPL that help us better understand our planet and the universe around us. We discussed the importance of Academy of Sciences’ decadal surveys, reports written every 10 years that look into the future and set priorities for research areas, observations and notional missions.

This survey is incredibly important because it allows scientists – not politicians – to determine the most appropriate research and missions for NASA to pursue. Many of the missions done at JPL and other NASA centers, including the Mars 2020 and Europa missions, are based on previous decadal survey recommendations. The upcoming Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey for 2020 will help us determine where to look following the launch of the James Webb Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Perhaps one of the most important missions that NASA undertakes on behalf of the United States is that of ambassador to the world. When our rovers, satellites or manned missions deploy into space they provide us with massive amounts of data that lead to future discoveries. And when these missions beam photos back to Earth, those images are viewed by millions of people worldwide and help spread the spirit of discovery for the benefit of humankind.

When it comes to NASA and JPL, politics must always take a backseat to scientific discovery. After meeting with Administrator Bridenstine, I feel confident we share this mindset, and I look forward to working with him in the coming years to advance the future of NASA.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.