The following is in the New York Times this week:
Just as NASA is on the cusp of answering the most fascinating questions about Mars — is there, was there or could there be life there? — the money needed to provide the answers is about to be abruptly withdrawn, a victim of President Obama’s budget request for 2013, scientists say. Two ambitious missions that NASA had hoped to launch to Mars, in 2016 and 2018, will be canceled. […]
NASA has withdrawn from a collaboration with the European Space Agency that would have launched the missions in 2016 and 2018, angering the Europeans and disappointing astrobiologists and planetary scientists. […]
The Europeans could possibly turn to Russia as a new partner for the Mars missions that NASA will no longer pursue. While NASA has laid the groundwork of Mars exploration for the past 15 years, other nations could conceivably swoop in for the most significant discoveries.
The writing is on the wall, Nebuchadnezzar. And don’t forget the Chinese. This little tidbit was in the Washington Times two years ago:
The median age of NASA’s manned space engineers is now over 55. Over a quarter are past retirement age. Meanwhile, China’s average lunar probe engineer is about 33 years old and the Shenzhou manned-space program engineers average about 36.
China’s space program also seems to have all the funding and resources it needs, partially due to the fact that seven of China’s nine most senior leaders – the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo – are themselves engineers.
Speculating about counterfactuals is always dicey, but historians have long noted that, over the past 600 years, the course of human events might well have played out starkly different if China, in the 1400s, had not been so isolationist and uninterested in ocean exploration. Under an alert, imaginative, and inquisitive emperor’s vision, the Chinese might well have reached North America by ship before Columbus. And that, as they say, would have been quite a game changer.
But it was not to be.
There’s now another largely unexplored ocean out there. It’s the ocean of space. And this time it’s the West—specifically and ironically, we Americans—and not the East, which may now be caught flat-footed on dry earth. This, at any rate, is what Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong—in an opinion piece for USA Today written last year with two other astronauts, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan—suggested:
After over a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent.
The worried astronauts quote John F. Kennedy as saying in a speech the following:
We have a long way to go in this space race. But this is the new ocean, and I believe that the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none.
The cancellation of the Mars life missions is a pretty clear indication that the United States is pulling its “space boats” into port. What a narrowing of the human soul—and of America’s soul.
NASA has not abandoned Mars exploration. For example, a new Mars rover Curiosity is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on August 6 of this year. We are also launching a new satellite to orbit Mars in 2013. Your article implies that the partnership with the Europeans was the only Mars activity NASA had planned, when in fact it was just one element of an entire portfolio of exploration and research.
Well, it’s a bit late to pull the plug on Curiosity, isn’t it? It launched before President Obama’s new budget numbers were announced. But your point is taken: NASA still has plenty of science and engineering to do within the constraints of its current budget, including in relation to Mars.
Still, I sure would have liked to get a definitive answer to the “Are we alone” question before the end of this decade. Unless a dot.com billionaire steps forward to fund these missions with a couple of hundred million dollars, it’s not going to happen (at least by the United States).
And where’s the Kennedy spirit in America (the determination to be second to none in space exploration)? It looks like contemporary politicians are content for our country to be, when it comes to space, “also-rans.”