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NSRC 2023

Europa Orbiter illustration
Funding constraints could keep NASA from flying a Europa orbiter mission or other key planetary science missions for the indefinite future. (credit: NASA)

A dark future for exploration

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I closed my column last week saying, “Like the faded maritime powers of the 16th century, Russia is headed to be in space what Portugal and Holland became on the oceans: forgotten explorers. There is a lesson for the US here: Things can change quickly.” They sure do.

NASA is now not just paralyzed, but its vital signs are weakening.

Eleven months ago fans of space exploration cheered as President Obama, for the first time since John Kennedy, went on the road to support a program for a new venture of human exploration: “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Then Congress went to work and, today, we have no coherent human space exploration goals, objectives, or program. We instead have a weak jobs program, spending money on a cancelled project and ordering a new rocket-to-nowhere project.

In that same speech the president said, “We will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system” and “We will increase Earth-based observation to improve our understanding of our climate and our world.” In his very next budget submission last month, with still no budget passed by Congress for the current fiscal year, he proposed elimination of robotic precursor missions, a decrease in planetary science funding, and delays of vitally needed Earth science missions (a need which just increased as a result of the loss of Glory). All of the proposed increases that were submitted to Congress last year (and which they failed to act upon) are eliminated. In addition, the budget submission ignored the James Webb Space Telescope and the future Mars program—kicking the can of their consideration down the road. NASA is now not just paralyzed, but its vital signs are weakening.

Later today the National Academy of Sciences Planetary Decadal Survey report is being released. The Survey was to evaluate a plethora of planetary exploration riches and decide priorities in order to reap rewards from a new era of exploration. International flagships would be sent to Mars and the Outer Planets while smaller ships were to continue making new discoveries throughout the solar system. Instead, as the report indicates, there will be no plethora of riches; we’ll be lucky to get a collection of rags. The Survey team accepted guidelines and constraints imposed by the agency for both cost and budget and came up with the inevitable result: we can’t continue Mars landers and we can’t have an Outer Planets Flagship. We will not search nearby worlds for signs of extraterrestrial life, and we’ll accept a new era with fewer missions and less science.

Human space exploration was torpedoed last year. This year the robots are being fired upon. It is my view that without space exploration—new adventures to new worlds and scientific discovery about our universe—there will be little reason for NASA’s existence and the space agency will wither as its public support diminishes. I am not sure about the European reaction to the diminishing of plans for the joint Mars lander program and Outer Planets Flagship, but I am not optimistic about Europe’s independent ability to take over space exploration. Interfax reported this week that Russia has developed a “space strategy” that includes the exploration and development of the moon, Mars, and beyond. (Was this a reaction to my criticism of last week? I wish I had that power.) Maybe the tide will turn again—for as I said, things change quickly. Right now it seems that America is headed for exploration oblivion.

Right now it seems that America is headed for exploration oblivion.

There is a view that space exploration can wait. At least three heads of NASA in the past thirty years advised those of us in The Planetary Society to “take a deep breath” and wait until enabling technologies made it cheaper to go to space. That philosophy led to a dark decade of no exploration in the 1980s (and to more expensive access to space). Similarly, I have met many political leaders and heard reactions like, “Mars (or Europa) has been there for billions of years, it can wait a few more years until we solve our problems on Earth.” There are two things wrong with this reaction. First, we are not solving our problems here on Earth—we are actually ignoring them or making them worse. Second, Mars and Europa care not a whit when we get there, but we Earthlings—and, specifically, our children—do. We will raise a generation that ceases from exploration and knows not the place from which it came. (I apologize to T.S. Eliot.) Sure, we have a financial debt to deal with, but we are also passing along an intellectual and inspiration debt to the next generation.

The question now for those interested in space exploration to decide is whether we, like the Planetary Decadal Committee, accept the “realities,” and go back to our labs (figuratively) to think small, or do we try to change the realities?