Spaced: Planetary Exploration Headed Toward Irrelevance

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium, told National Public Radio on Monday (2/27) that America's space program is at a critical moment. After misspent years trying to find a substitute for the aspirations in manned space exploration, NASA seems to be giving up. Other dreamers - Chinese, Indian - may take that route to "first world" status.

And last week, NASA officials confirmed for JPL scientists in Pasadena that the agency's 2013 budget will curtail a decade's worth of robotic exploration projects, including the development of a system to return soil samples from Mars, the launch of new probes to the outer planets; and construction of the next generation of smaller, smarter, and cheaper exploration vehicles.

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Not much is left of America in space, just the current mission to land a new, larger rover on Mars; a few legacy missions (like the small Mars rovers); and the International Space Station (which will have cost at least $150 billion by 2015). The long-delayed Webb space telescope is supposed to be launched in 2018.

Nothing else is confirmed - or likely to be - according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. There are no funds projected in NASA's budget to pay for any multi-billion-dollar planetary probes. Proposed exploration programs to Mars and the moons of Jupiter will have to be scratched, at least in their current form.

In effect, NASA is getting out of the business of touching down on new worlds, burdened by the cost of the space telescope, maintenance of an aging space station, and the development of a an Apollo-style manned capsule for low-earth-orbit. Planetary science simply isn't a priority for NASA, despite the astonishing amount of information NASA's probes have returned since the first Mars missions.

As a result, it's getting more difficult for NASA to hold together the JPL team that made all this science possible or recruit dreamers and builders who will take a human presence to the planets and moons of the solar system. "I'm . . . here to implore you to stay focused," NASA Administrator Bolden told JPL staff members. "I think many people are starting to understand how hard this is."

Bolden was reflecting on how hard it will be to reframe NASA's mission in terms of vastly diminished aspirations, even more diminished than those that followed the moon landings of the 1970s. But he might also have been reflecting on the difficulty of igniting new aspirations for exploration in space.

NASA's critical moment isn't entirely about money. It's more likely to be a rapidly waning "sense of wonder" about what is to be known and experienced (if only remotely) out there, beyond low earth orbit.

Without a robust planetary program, why wonder at all?

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