Word has leaked out that in its new budget, the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, being readied on the pad, will be launched, as will the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013, but that will be it. No further missions to anywhere are planned.
After 2013, America’s amazing career of planetary exploration, which ran from the Mariner probes in the 1960s through the great Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Spirit, Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Galileo and Cassini missions, will simply end.
Furthermore, the plan from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also leaves the space astronomy program adrift and headed for destruction. The now-orbiting Kepler Telescope will be turned off in midmission, stopping it before it can complete its goal of finding other Earths. Even worse, the magnificent Webb Telescope, the agency’s flagship, which promises fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the laws of the universe, is not sufficiently funded to allow successful completion. This guarantees further costly delays, with the ensuing budgetary overruns leading inevitably to eventual cancellation.
The administration’s decision to derail planetary exploration and space astronomy is shocking and portends the destruction of the entire American space program. As an agency, NASA is a mixed bag. It includes a large bureaucracy and wasteful, pork-driven spending. But it also includes departments that are technically superb and really deliver the goods. First and foremost among NASA’s most productive divisions are the planetary exploration and space astronomy programs. Kill those, and what is left will be indefensible.
NASA’s planetary and space astronomy programs are not merely good scientific work. They are epic achievements representative of humanity’s highest ideals in its search for truth. As a result of a string of successful probes sent to the Red Planet over the past 15 years, we now know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years - a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals and a sufficient period of time, life must have appeared on Mars. If we can find it, we will have good reason to believe we are not alone in the universe.
The Kepler observatory has discovered more than 1,000 other solar systems, and if it’s allowed to continue operating, it could well find other worlds like ours. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, indicating the existence of a basic force of nature that previously was unknown. The Webb Telescope will be five times as powerful as Hubble. If it can be completed and flown, there is no telling what discoveries it could make. From the laws of gravity through nuclear fusion, many of our most important discoveries in physics were made through astronomy. We have no idea what the processes were that allowed for the creation of matter, energy and the universe. Webb might help us find out. The potential gains to humanity from such expanded knowledge are beyond calculation.
The ostensible reason for the administration’s decision to kill planetary exploration and space astronomy is budgetary discipline. Yet while federal spending has grown 40 percent since 2008, NASA’s funding has remained virtually the same. It is not NASA that is bankrupting America, but OMB. If the administration needs to cut budgets, it should start with those of the regulatory agencies that are strangling the nation’s businesses rather than NASA, which helps the economy through scientific discoveries, technological innovation and the inspiration of youth to pursue careers in engineering. Furthermore, if there were a need to cut NASA, it would make more sense to trim almost anywhere else in the agency. Instead, the administration’s goal seems to be to destroy the entire space program by hitting it in its most vital parts.
The desertion of America’s great exploration enterprise is an offense against science and civilization. It represents a radical departure from the pioneer spirit, and its ratification as policy would preclude any possibility of a human future in space. It is an inexcusable decision, and it needs to be reversed.
Robert Zubrin is the president of Pioneer Astronautics and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must” (Free Press, 2011, second edition).