Don't Scuttle the Fleet

By Murray, Bruce; Friedman, Louis et al. | National Forum, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

Don't Scuttle the Fleet


Murray, Bruce, Friedman, Louis, Anderson, Louis, National Forum


NASA was born in 1958, a positive side effect of the deadly serious Cold War. By 1962, America's Mariner 2 flyby of Venus opened the era of planetary exploration. With the momentum generated by the Cold War, we carried out a preliminary reconnaissance of every planet in our solar system except Pluto. (Figure 1 depicts the history of planetary exploration.) Now, three decades later, the Cold War is over. Suddenly, the geopolitical and economic situation in the world is vastly different.

To meet the challenges of this new world, NASA must refocus its energy and find a new raison d'etre. Its planetary program is no exception. Our fleet of exploratory spacecraft needs to be reevaluated and revamped. We argue in favor of such changes, but we also caution not to let these changes become an excuse to scuttle the fleet itself. Specifically, we call to the attention of Congress:

* the importance of maintaining the American-European Cassini mission, even as it is scaled down;

* the short-sightedness of ending operations of Magellan while it is still sending important new data from Venus;

* the need for small missions such as the proposed Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) lunar precursor to supplement--but not to displace--mid-size planetary missions.

Looking backward, we note that America's exploration of the planets ranks high among the great achievements of the past thirty years. They were historic voyages of discovery in the tradition of the great seafaring adventures of the Age of Exploration. These twentieth-century expeditions were carried out with robotic spacecraft that vastly extended humanity's scientific reach to the edge of the solar system. Indeed, the spirit of discovery was the hallmark of the U.S. endeavors in space. And it is the continuation of this spirit into the next century that is being threatened by the administration's proposed budget actions for fiscal year 1993.

The U.S. takes pride in these achievements in planetary exploration, ranging from the Mariners to Mercury, Venus, and Mars; the Pioneers to Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn; the Voyagers to the four giant outer planets and their moons; to Viking's search for life on the red surface of Mars. The explorations of new worlds have well served America's ambitions for scientific and technological excellence. These voyages are admired by other nations, are inspirations to young people, and are sources of wonder to all.

The exploration of the planets is helping scientists to understand our home planet and how to keep it habitable. We are learning much about greenhouse effects on global climate from the probes of Mars and Venus; about the effect of aerosols and trace gases on our terrestrial atmosphere from the probes of Venus: about prospects for Earth's global warming and cooling from analyses of Mars' dust-storms; and about the evolution of life on Earth from such diverse evidence as Mars' surface history and the record of asteroid and cometary impacts on the terrestrial planets. Comparative planetology is no longer an arcane scientific discipline; it has become an important tool for understanding our own planet.

To provide perspective on this historic endeavor, one can group past U.S. planetary missions into three categories:

* small missions on which we explored Earth's immediate environment in space. In seafaring terms, these spacecraft were the equivalent of coastal cruisers.

* mid-size missions on which we made the preliminary reconnaissance of the planets. These "deep water" craft, like the frigates of old, were capable of rapidly traversing great expanses of space and surviving long journeys and were efficiently built with the steady evolution of spacecraft technology.

* large missions that required substantial advances in spacecraft technology were designed for new launch vehicles and that fulfilled great scientific and exploratory ambitions. These endeavors reach into the "dreadnought" class, in which the high cost was seen as a price worth paying both for the scientific results to be achieved and for the international recognition of U. …

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