Has America Really Lost It’s “Lead in Space?”

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Vice President Mike Pence addresses NASA employees, Thursday, July 6, 2017, at the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Vice President spoke following a tour that highlighted the public-private partnerships at KSC, as both NASA and commercial companies prepare to launch American astronauts in the years ahead.  Pence spoke at length about human space exploration, but very little about NASA space science. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

I was moved to weigh in after reading Vice President Mike Pence’s comments last week down at the Kennedy Space Center — a speech that seemed to minimize NASA’s performance in recent years (decades?) and to propose a return to a kind of Manifest Destiny way of thinking in space.

The speech did not appear to bode well for space science, which has dominated NASA news with many years of exploration into the history and working of the cosmos and solar system, the still little-understood domain of exoplanets, the search for life beyond Earth.

Instead, the speech was very much about human space exploration, with an emphasis on “boots on the ground,” national security, and setting up colonies.

“We will beat back any disadvantage that our lack of attention has placed and America will once again lead in space,” Pence said.

“We will return our nation to the moon, we will go to Mars, and we will still go further to places that our children’s children can only imagine. We will maintain a constant presence in low-Earth orbit, and we’ll develop policies that will carry human space exploration across our solar system and ultimately into the vast expanses. As the president has said, ‘Space is,’ in his words, ‘the next great American frontier.’ And like the pioneers that came before us, we will settle that frontier with American leadership, American courage and American ingenuity.”  (Transcript here.)

Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17, the last team to land on the moon, almost 45 years ago.  (NASA)

That a new president will have a different kind of vision for NASA than his predecessors is hardly surprising.  NASA may play little or no role in a presidential election, but the agency is a kind of treasure trove of high profile possibilities for any incoming administration.

That the Trump administration wants to emphasize human space exploration is also no surprise.  Other than flying up and back to construct and use the International Space Station, and then out to the Hubble Space Telescope for repairs, American astronauts have not been in space since the last Apollo mission in 1972.  It should be said, however, that no other nation has sent astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, either, since then.

Where I found the speech off-base was to talk down the many extraordinary discoveries in recent decades about our planet, the solar system, the galaxy and beyond made during NASA missions and made possible by cutting-edge NASA technology and innovations.

In fact, many scientists, members of Congress and NASA followers would enthusiastically agree that the last few decades have been an absolute Golden Age in space discovery — all of it done without humans in space (except for those Hubble repairs.)

To argue for a more muscular human space program does not have to come with a diminishing of the enormous space science advances of these more recent years;  missions and discoveries that brought to Americans and the world spectacular images and understandings of Mars, of Jupiter and Saturn and their potentially habitable moons, of Pluto, of hot Jupiters, super-Earths and exoplanet habitable zones, and of deep, deep space and time made more comprehensible because of NASA grand observatories.

To say that the United States has given up its “lead in space,” it seems to me, requires a worrisome dismissal of all this and much more.

Selfie of Curiosity rover on sedimentary rock deposited by water in Gale Crater on Mars. (NASA)

Let’s start on Mars.  For the past 20 years, NASA has had one or more rovers exploring the planet.   In all, the agency has successfully landed seven vehicles on the planet — which is the sum total of human machinery that has ever arrived in operational shape on the surface (unless you count the Soviet Mars 3 capsule which landed in 1971 and sent back information for 14 seconds before going silent.)

One of the two rovers now on Mars — Curiosity — has established once and for all time that Mars was entirely habitable in its early life.  It has drilled into the planet numerous times and has tested the samples for essential-for-life carbon organic compounds (which it found.)  It also has detected clear evidence of long-ago and long-standing lakes and rivers.  And it measured radiation levels at the surface over years to help determine how humans might one day survive there.

I think it’s fair to say that Curiosity has advanced an understanding of the history and current realities of Mars more than any other mission, and perhaps more than all the others combined.

Equally important, the almost two-thousand pound rover was delivered to the surface via a new landing technique called the “sky crane.”  If your goal is to some day land a human on Mars, then learning how to deliver larger and larger payloads is essential because a capsule for astronauts would weigh something like 80,000 pounds.

The European Space Agency, as well as the Russians and Chinese, have tried to send landers to Mars in recent years, but with no success.

And as for Curiosity, it has been exploring Mars now for almost five years — well past its nominal mission lifetime.

This Cassini image of Saturn is the of 21 frames across 7 footprints, filtered in groups of red, green, and blue. The sequence was captured by Cassini over the course of 90-plus minutes on the morning of October 28th. Like many premier images from space, an individual — here Ian Regan — used the public access information and images provided by NASA of all its missions to produce the mosaic. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Ian Regan)

NASA missions to Saturn and Jupiter have sent back images that are startling in their beauty and overflowing in their science.  And they have found unexpected features that could some day lead to a discovery of extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

The most surprising discovery was at Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which turns out to be spewing water vapor into space from its south pole region.  This water contains, among other important compounds, those organic building blocks of life, as well as evidence that the plumes are generated by hydrothermal heating of the ocean under the surface of the moon.

In other words, there is a global ocean on Enceladus and at the bottom of it water and hot rock are in contact and are reacting in a way that, on Earth at least, would provide an environment suitable for life.  And then the moon is spitting out the water to make it quite possible to study that water vapor and whatever might be in it.

If the last decades are a guide, up-close study of these icy moons is a challenge and opportunity that the United States alone — sometimes in collaboration with European partners — has shown the ability and appetite to embrace make happen.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The plumes were investigated and even traversed by the Cassini spacecraft, which is a joint NASA-ESA mission.  The primary ESA contribution was the Huygens probe that descended to Titan in 2005.   To people in the space science community, these kind of collaborations — generally with European space agencies — allow for more complex missions and good international relations.

Plumes of water vapor have also been tentatively discovered identified on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.  The data for the discovery came mostly from the Hubble Space Telescope, and is already a part of the previously approved NASA future.  The Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in the 2020s, to orbit the moon and intensively examine the solar system world believed most likely to contain life.

The plumes would be coming from another large global ocean under a thick shell of ice, a body of water understood to be much older and much bigger than that of Enceladus. Clearly, having some of that H2O available for exploration without going through the thick ice shell would be an enormous obstacle eraser.

A follow-up Europa lander mission has been studied and got favorable reviews from a NASA panel, but was not funded by the Trump Administration.  Several follow-up Enceladus life-detection missions are currently under review.

This very high resolution mosaic image of the Pillars of Creation was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014 and is a reprise of the iconic image first taken in 1995. The pillars are part of a nebula some 6,500-7000 light-years from Earth, and are immense clouds of gas and dust where stars are born. (NASA)

I think one could make a strong case that the Hubble Space Telescope has been the most transformative, productive and admired piece of space technology ever made.

For more than two decades now it has been the workhorse of the astrophysics, cosmology and exoplanet communities, and has arguably produced more world-class stunning images than Picasso.  In terms of exploring the cosmos and illustrating some of what’s out there, it has no competition.

There is little point to describing its specific accomplishments in terms of discovery because they are so many.  Suffice it to say that a collection of published science papers using Hubble data would be very, very thick.

And because of past NASA, White House and congressional commitment to space science, the over-budget and long behind-schedule James Webb Space Telescope is now on target to launch late next year.  The Webb will potentially be as revelatory as the Hubble, or even more so in terms of understanding the early era of the universe, the nature and origin of ubiquitous dark matter, and the composition of exoplanets.

Preliminary planning for the great observatory for the 2030s is underway now, and nobody knows whether funding for something as ambitious will be available.

The era of directly imaging exoplanets has only just begun, but the science and viewing pleasures to come are appealingly apparent. This evocative movie of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 is a composite of sorts, including images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. (Jason Wang/University of California, Berkeley and Christian Marois, National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. )

Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were made by astrophysicists at ground-based observatories, and were made by both American, European and Canadian scientists.  NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and others played a kind of supporting role for the agency, but that all changed with the launch of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

From 2009 to today, the Kepler has identified more than 4,000 exoplanet candidates with more than 2,400 confirmed planets, many of which are rocky like Earth.  Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

The census provided by Kepler, which looked fixedly at only one small part of the deep sky for four years until mechanical, led to the consensus conclusion that the Milky Way alone is home to billions of planets and that many of them are rocky and in the habitable zone of their host stars.

In other words, Kepler made enormous progress in defining the population of exoplanets likely to exist out there — a wild menagerie of objects  very different from what might have been expected, and in systems very different as well.

Two additional NASA observatories designed to detect and study exoplanets are scheduled to launch in the next decade.

A NASA rendering of a possible moon colony, along the lines of the International Space Station. It was proposed in 2006 by President George W. Bush.) NASA

Given the number of references to our moon in Pence’s Kennedy Space Station speech — and the enormous costs of the also often referenced humans-to-Mars idea — my bet is that moon landings and perhaps a “colony” will be the Administration’s human space exploration project of choice.

I say this because it is achievable, with NASA rockets and capsules under construction and the fast-growing capabilities of commercial space competitors.  We have, after all, proven that astronauts can land and survive on the moon, and a return there would be much less expensive than sending a human to Mars and back.  (I’m also skeptical that such a trip to Mars will be technically feasible any time in the foreseeable future, though I know that others strongly disagree.)

As readers of Many Worlds may remember, I’m a fan of a human spaceflight project championed by former astronaut and head of NASA’s Science Directorate John Grunsfeld to assemble a huge observatory in space designed to seriously look for life around distant stars.  This plan is innovative, would give NASA and astronauts an opportunity learn how to live and work in deep space, and would provide another science gem.  It would indeed show American space leadership.

But here is why I think a moon colony is going to be the choice:  Russia, China and the Europeans have all announced tentative plans to build moon colonies in the next decade or two.  So for primarily strategic, competitive and national security reasons, it seems likely that this kind of “new frontier” is what the administration has in mind.

After all, Pence also said in his speech at the KSC that “Under President Donald Trump, American security will be as dominant in the heavens as we are here on Earth.”  (An apparent reference to both NASA and the military space program, which is significantly better funded than NASA.)

Setting up an American moon colony would be very costly in dollars, time and focus, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Given that a pie can be sliced just so many ways, however, it’s pretty clear that a major moon colony project would end up taking a significant amount of funding away from space science missions.

Returning to the moon and even setting up a colony is not, however, an example of American leadership.  Rather, it would constitute a decision for the United States and NASA to, in effect, follow the pack.

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Marc Kaufman

Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.


To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.


One thought on “Has America Really Lost It’s “Lead in Space?”

  1. What a magnificent piece, Marc,

    One could start the design of an undergraduate course on space science: methods and discoveries, starting from the summary you have given here. It would go a long way to producing the kind of educated public we would need to get off reality TV and put informed pressure on elected officials to make sound decisions. Thank you!

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