nasa doesn’t care about other planets

Planetary scientists who want to study plants other than Mars and very unhappy with what they see as NASA's obsession with the red planet.

curiosity retro rocket

Or at least that’s how Kanye West would’ve characterized the reaction of planetary scientists to NASA’s announcement that its next big mission in 2020 would be to send an updated Curiosity twin to Mars at a target cost of $1.5 billion. What’s the problem? Well, planetary science budgets aren’t exactly all that large or flexible so every dollar spent on Mars comes out of the budget of a future mission to Europa or Titan. And with NASA’s recent zeal about Mars, it seems like the red planet is squeezing out the rest of the solar system from the agency’s scientific priorities. Since everyone’s buzzing about Mars rovers, manned missions to Mars, potential cities on Mars, with a periodic misunderstanding about traces of microbial life on Mars thrown in for extra publicity, the visibility for missions beyond the cold, rusty desert world is plummeting and with it, the chance to get decent funding for an ambitious new mission deep into the outer solar system.

From a bureaucrat’s standpoint, you can see why NASA is eager to send more rovers to Mars. It worked out the kinks and really understands how to land robots on the red planet. Images being beamed by a rover from the surface of another world rocket across the web and TV, and prompt a thousand cheers for the agency, citing the latest landing as proof that NASA can still do truly amazing and awe-inspiring things, regardless of what the whiny curmudgeons think. But just like studio executives in Hollywood trying to sell the same movies again and again with new actors or new titles, NASA administrators could easily venture past the point of diminishing returns, when new rovers on Mars will produce little more than yawns and reruns of the same stories written as its predecessors touched down. The agency doesn’t have enough money or political capital to tie its future to Mars. In the 1980s, when it was still riding the Apollo high, it’s pricey proposals were quickly rejected. In today’s environment on Capitol Hill, NASA is lucky to still be around.

Technically speaking, we could spend the next century studying Mars and find something brand new and scientifically exciting every time. We do that on Earth all the time and we study it every day. But there’s an entire solar system beyond Mars with equally significant scientific wonders to discover and equally compelling reasons to study. NASA doesn’t exist to repeat its last success; its job is to boldly go new places and undertake ambitious missions with uncertain results. It has to stop marketing itself as the agency that once took humans to the Moon and start carving out an identity as a proving ground for high risk but very high payoff blue sky ideas, like DARPA. Will it be an uphill fight to get the attention and funding from politicians whose primary preoccupation today tends to be losing maturity contests to middle schoolers, and a public which likes to keep demanding progress and innovation without caring how its obtained or how much it costs? Yes, it will. But it’s a fight worth having and avoiding it by launching rovers to Mars only delays it…

# space // planetary science / realpolitik / scientific research / space exploration

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