September 26, 2006

Scientists Seek More Space Exploration

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While all presidents since John F. Kennedy have been touting their own space programs, some accomplished their goals and were immortalized in history, but others were never realized and are long since forgotten.

NASA’s budget has grown and shrunk and grown yet again under various administrations and Congresses. Hundreds of space projects have been proposed and scrapped when the necessary funding never appeared. It is into this atmosphere of uncertainty that undergraduate scientists and engineers will someday tread.

In the immediate future, NASA must maintain a decaying space shuttle fleet, build the International Space Station and design the next set of manned spacecraft. These obligations, such as the International Space Station, were set by international agreements, and by decree of the current president’s “Renewed Spirit of Discovery” initiative, which plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020. With these projects taking up a large portion of the budget, scientists are left with what appears to be an ever-dwindling account for science missions. While manned missions are huge technical achievements, they garner small amounts of scientific data as compared to the Hubble Space Telescope or the Cassini Orbiter.

It isn’t all dark; most new space missions combine multiple science objectives from nearly unrelated fields of astronomy, creating spacecraft that produce tremendous amounts of scientific data on the dollar. Engineering has felt the crunch too, but rather than a decline in quality, designs have been improved according to the mistakes of the past and have become much more innovative. One such successful mission is the Mars Exploration Rovers, led by a science team from Cornell, but built by the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Last Thursday, Dr. Charles Elachi, director of JPL, spoke of these concerns and successes to a large crowd of graduate and undergraduate students. He began with an old Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” In this spirit, Elachi reaffirmed why astronomy is important and necessary. He asked the audience, “What if our ancestors had never explored? Never left their caves? Never experimented with fire?” This is a primary motivation for science in general, but Elachi went further and said, “Astronomy holds the real possibility of answering the biggest questions: What is this place? How did it happen? How common are we? Why us? Why now?” After answering these big picture questions, we end up learning more about ourselves.

Elachi felt that despite budget deficits and difficulties, the drive to answer these and more questions will continue to create funding opportunities far into the future. He noted that every president and almost every Congress since the ’50s has at least in rhetoric supported scientific space exploration. JPL in fact has 18 current operational missions. Some, such as the Voyager missions, were launched in 1977 and are now 100 times farther away from the Sun than the Earth. Others such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Deep Impact were launched in the last few years.

Successful space missions are a mainstay of JPL, and Elachi gave the crowd a look into future possible missions. One such mission, named Dawn, will travel to one of the largest asteroids, first to Vesta and then on to Ceres, with the desire to learn more about how they were created and the solar system in general. JPL is also participating in NASA’s push to explore Mars and is building the Phoenix Mars Scout to explore the Martian poles. The Herschel Space Observatory is a submillimeter telescope built to explore the early universe. All of these missions are planned for launch in 2007. These examples highlight Elachi’s confidence that recent budget turmoil will not affect future exploration and that space is a great career move.