Early this morning, after a long journey through the night, a spacecraft began what is likely to be a spectacular period of exploration. The arrival of Cassini at the planet Saturn after a trip of almost seven years and 2.2 billion miles could leave a path for the agency that sent it to follow, if policy-makers give NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe sufficient support.
Assuming its main engine burn was successful, the Cassini spacecraft will begin at least a four-year exploration of the sixth planet from the sun, sweeping through the system at least 76 times and having more than 50 encounters with its 31 known moons. It will also examine Saturn’s rings in detail. Earlier this month, Cassini crossed close to Saturn’s small moon Phoebe, giving evidence that it is an icy leftover from the formation of the solar system.
One of Cassini’s chief objectives is an exploration of Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan is the only moon in the solar system known to have a dense atmosphere, which like Earth’s is composed mostly of nitrogen. It also has many hydrocarbons (which scientists consider essential to life, although they do not expect to discover life on Titan), and early next year, the European-built Hyugens Probe, which has piggybacked on the Cassini craft, will plunge into the moon, exploring its atmosphere and surface. The total cost of the mission will be about $3 billion, but its scientific returns could be incalculable.
Mr. O’Keefe’s plan to overhaul NASA is even more ambitious than the objectives of the Cassini mission. The administrator plans to follow the recommendations of the President’s Space Commission by streamlining and transforming the agency. To better fulfill the goal of sending humanity to the moon, Mars and beyond, Mr. O’Keefe plans to consolidate seven NASA departments into four mission directorates: Exploration Systems, Space Operations, Science and Aeronautics Research.
His plan will take effect Aug. 1. That changeover, while important, is likely to be only the beginning. Not all of the changes have been settled on, and they have already unsettled several interested parties. “This is a work in progress,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “It’s going to take time. Any transformation is evolutionary.”
But, as with Cassini, the rewards expected at the end of NASA’s long transition are likely to make its costs and pains worthwhile. While scientists are enjoying Cassini’s arrival at Saturn, policy-makers should be sure that Mr. O’Keefe has what he needs to take the next steps.