NASA’s newest marvel, a one-ton rover named Curiosity, has been set down with all the delicacy of a carton of eggs on the surface of Mars. The perfect landing came after a complex series of automated maneuvers that had been tagged the “seven minutes of terror,” but that in the end were executed so flawlessly as to render the mission’s Earthly handlers speechless with relief. There wasn’t even a single error to report.
On such evidence it could easily seem that planetary exploration is in the full bloom of vigorous good health under American leadership, thank you very much. There’s little doubt that during the last decade the genre of robotic space exploration has reached an apex of achievement.
Unfortunately, an apex already implies a fall, and the Obama administration’s proposed NASA budget for 2013 seemingly wants to make that fall as immediate as possible, chopping $300 million from the agency’s planetary science division — a whopping 20 percent cut from 2012.
If such an evisceration is allowed to stand, the most cost-effective and successful division of NASA — the very part of the agency that is actually exploring space with relatively economical robots, rather than flying astronauts expensively in the endless circularity of low Earth orbit — will be reduced to a ghost of its former self. Curiosity could well be a swan song: NASA’s final flagship interplanetary mission.
Such cuts will also assure the demise of a fully elaborated and streamlined national infrastructure, one that knits together engineering talent, scientific expertise, technological innovation, spaceflight management, and communications systems that span the entire Solar System. This apparatus took five decades to build and constitutes one of the great achievements of our time. If it is allowed to come crashing down, it will be virtually impossible to replace.
Just to be clear, these are the people and institutions that have produced some of the most cost-effective and powerful technologies ever conceived by the United States. Over the last five decades, NASA Planetary Science Division Voyagers and Vikings, its Magellan Venus radar mapper and Galileo Jupiter mission, its still-active Cassini Saturn orbiter and its ridiculously hardy Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have opened up the entire Solar System to human eyes. Brought to us in scrupulous detail, a dazzling series of worlds and their moons have enlarged our collective sense of our location within space and time.
But let’s set aside the glories of discovery for the moment and look at space exploration’s realpolitik. What do we get out of it, in concrete terms?
To begin with, the money spent to achieve the exploration of the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn is money spent on Earth, not anywhere else. It powers innovative companies and develops technologies that inevitably — and demonstrably — benefit our economy and our national prospects.
If we go back all the way to the Apollo era, we’ll soon see that it’s no accident that each of us has the equivalent of a flawlessly miniaturized Mission Control on our digital desktops, with rows of icons standing in for Houston’s rows of technicians seated at telemetry monitors, and each icon signifying a software application ready to do our bidding at a click.
Our sublimely networked information-based civilization would have been inconceivable without the immense number of technological innovations spurred by NASA’s push to land on the Moon. There would’ve been no Apple without Apollo.
And this fruitful spillover of software and hardware innovation has cascaded forth from NASA programs ever since, irrigating Silicon Valley, among other places. Remarkably, even near-failures by the space agency have resulted in positive spin-off technologies that in turn have led directly to meaningful, tangible civilian applications capable of propelling economic progress.
For example, the failure of NASA’s Galileo orbiter to open its crucial high-gain antenna while en-route to Jupiter in 1990 resulted in a NASA-wide crash program intended to rescue the mission. The problem was that the spacecraft’s underpowered omni-directional antenna, which had been intended for use only while Galileo was near Earth, was now the only way to receive data from a spacecraft more than 576 million miles away — the greatest distance of Jupiter from Earth. And that antenna only had the feeble power of a 20 watt bulb, radiating energy wastefully in every direction.
Undeterred, NASA engineers devised an ingenious series of IT fixes, many of which involved developing or refining techniques for compressing and transmitting data through the keyhole of that impossibly faint signal. The result is that to this day, every time you send large documents across the Internet, or for that matter attach feather-light JPEG pictures to an e-mail and send them to a friend, you’re directly benefiting from NASA research triggered by Galileo’s antenna failure. (Meanwhile the mission itself was transformed from certain failure to remarkable success.)
Many other wholly pragmatic reasons exist to pursue a vigorous program of interplanetary space exploration. These range from the utility of understanding the climatological stories of our neighboring terrestrial planets Venus and Mars (one of which swelters under a runaway greenhouse effect enforced by its dense atmosphere, with the other being a frigid desert world), to the usefulness of investigating the geology of near-Earth asteroids, and thus how they could potentially best be deflected from Earth-intersecting, and potentially civilization-ending, trajectories.
Finally it bears repeating that in its entirety, meaning including human spaceflight and all its other divisions, NASA costs less than half of one percent of the federal budget — a fraction of a penny on every tax dollar.
Given the steady stream of high tech innovations that has streamed forth from the agency for decades, enriching our lives and bolstering our economy, the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars should be an occasion not just to celebrate an astonishingly cool civilizational achievement, but also to renew our national commitment to the peaceful exploration of outer space.
We can start by restoring funding to the agency’s prodigiously dynamic and successful interplanetary explorations.
Michael Benson is the author of Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes and Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle. His new book of Solar System landscape photography, Planetfall, will be published in October.