We seem to be running out of space.
Or, perhaps more accurately, running away from space. Space exploration, that is. Recent deep funding cuts by the Administration and Congress for NASA's space exploration programs are turning the final frontier into an ever-receding dream. "To boldly go" is quickly becoming "to cheaply dink around." What the heck is going on?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the world's first successful interplanetary space mission -- Mariner 2's successful flyby of Venus in 1962. Since then, nearly 70 more American spacecraft have set out on a series of daring, exciting, and scientifically rewarding adventures to explore the Sun, Moon, and planets, sometimes in person (on the 9 crewed Apollo missions that traveled beyond low Earth orbit), but mostly with people back here on Earth exploring via the virtual senses of our silicon-based robotic emissaries. During this last half century the American frontier has been expanded to literally encompass the entire solar system.
Astronomers and planetary scientists are on the verge of making profound discoveries about the origin and distribution of life in the solar system and beyond, by exploring ancient or even present habitable environments on Mars, on Jupiter's ocean moons Europa and Ganymede, and on Saturn's icy, organic-bearing moons Enceladus and Titan. The internet has made space exploration a vicarious, shared experience that teachers, students, space enthusiasts, and the general public can directly participate in -- in real time even. Discoveries in outer space are motivated and informed by discoveries in geology, meteorology, paleontology, and biology here on Earth. In turn, what we learn about other worlds out there informs and educates us about the past, present, and future history of our own fragile and changing home planet.
Given the space program's storied history and its compelling future, it is puzzling and frustrating to see our political leaders enact or propose steps that would slow America's progress in exploring the space frontier. Budget cuts in NASA's solar system exploration program enacted last year by Congress began to put the brakes on more than a decade of amazing progress, threatening to derail existing and future robotic missions and space science education programs. The administration's recently-proposed NASA budget for the next five years would fulfill those threats, with major cuts in major planetary exploration and education programs, including a nearly 40% cut in the Mars exploration program and a 100% cut in NASA's ongoing lunar exploration program. NASA's involvement in two future international Mars missions, one with instruments and science teams already selected, would be cancelled. No new "flagship" missions, like Voyager or Galileo or Cassini or the new Mars rover Curiosity, would be started during the next five years, perhaps longer. Budgets for education programs, ongoing mission operations, and a variety of planetary science research and data analysis programs, would be slashed.
In the meantime, other nations -- who, combined, have now flown as many successful lunar and planetary space missions as the U.S. -- are vying to take over our leadership role. Our European colleagues, thwarted by NASA on their offers of partnership on new missions to Mars, are pursuing their own options with the Russians. The Russians, even after the stinging loss of a recent Mars mission attempt, are continuing to plan for future Mars and lunar missions. And the Chinese are making no secrets of their ambitions for more daring and far-reaching space missions, with robotic precursors leading eventually to taikonauts on the Moon and perhaps even Mars. Like us, these countries also recognize that exploring space is a defining imperative for a great society. If our belief in and commitment to that imperative wanes, there are others waiting to pick up the mantle of leadership.
As a nation, we do not condone skimping on equipment or training for our men and women in uniform, those who risk their lives to protect us and to help promote American ideals and values around the world. Exploring the solar system promotes American ideals and values too -- like teamwork, perseverance, ingenuity, and openness -- and also enables scientific discoveries and helps to educate and inspire our children, to train our high-tech workers, and to give us all a sense of pride in making possible truly historic events that will be remembered for centuries. While it is of course nowhere near as life-threatening or expensive as national defense (NASA's proposed new budget for its Science programs would fall to under just 0.13% of the entire $3.8 trillion federal budget), leading the exploration of space is no less worthy a goal to pursue. NASA's planetary exploration program is our modern incarnation of the American pioneer spirit, extending the frontier to worlds beyond. Let's not skimp on this, either.
Jim Bell is an astronomer and planetary scientist, a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University in Tempe, and the President of The Planetary Society, the world's largest public space advocacy organization. He is the lead scientist for the Pancam color stereo cameras on the NASA Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, is a member of the science camera team on NASA's Curiosity rover, and has authored several space photography books, including "Postcards from Mars", "Mars 3-D", and "Moon 3-D".