Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why Planetary Science Matters

The Curiosity rover could be the last major planetary mission for a decade.

Recently, NASA announced that it was shelving all future 'flagship' missions to the planets, pulling out of 2 international missions, and is scraping for enough funds to launch a pared-down mission to Mars by 2020. All in all, things are not looking good for NASA's planetary science division in the coming decade, which is bad for multiple reasons.

First of all, no missions to the planets means no new science. Now, while many people may consider spending millions, sometimes billions, of dollars on sending robotic probes to the planets a waste of money, it is not for one simple reason: survival.

For one reason or another, Earth will become uninhabitable at some point in the future, whether it be through pollution, resource depletion, some other man-made catastrophe, or through the death of the Sun, which will turn into a world-engulfing red giant at the end of its life, the final gasp of a dying star. Either way, Earth is doomed and if we are to survive as a species, we must become space-faring. As with human exploration on Earth, the first step in going to a new place is a quick, probing expedition which, in the case of planets, must be done with robots in our stead.

Spending money on space exploration is not a waste, it is an investment in our future.

Now, another, latent effect of this lack of going to the planets is even more damaging in that it may create a snowball effect wherein a lack of space exploration results in future disinterest, and even less exploration. This problem: no space exploration now could prevent today's children from taking up careers in space science in the future.

Yes, the old saying that the leaders of the future are in the schools of today may sound trite, but it is true. Many adults can find their lifelong passions in childhood, space scientists included. Now, with no missions to the planets planned in the coming decade, children of the 2010s who are interested in space will have very little current developments to read about. Worst case scenario: come the end of the decade, kids all across the country will be reading about NASA's planetary science program in the past tense, with no current news to spur their interest. For America, these could be the first children in a century not to have something exciting and new to read about in regards to space.

While the space age is only about 50 years old, the public's interest in space goes far deeper back in time. It was in 1888 during a close approach of Mars that Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiparelli thought that he saw channels, or canali in Italian, on Mars. In translation, canali was misinterpreted as 'canals,' thus implying some sort of artificial intelligence. Result: Mars fever swept the world, infecting an English writer by the name of H.G. Wells, who would go on to write War of the Worlds in 1898. After Wells, space-inspired science fiction became all the rage.

In 1902, Le Voyage das la Lune, A Trip to the Moon in English, became what is considered to be the first sci-fi film ever made. Despite running only 12 minutes, the film captured audiences' attention worldwide with its dazzling (for the time) special effects that showed astronomers blasting themselves to the Moon in a giant gun, fighting with the hostile inhabitants, and eventually returning to Earth and a hero's welcome.

For the next 50 years, the public would continue to get the same picture of space, namely far-out science fiction involving brave heroes, beautiful damsels, hostile aliens, and fantastic weapons. Still, though none of this was taken seriously by professional astronomers, such stories found in dime store novels and comic books was plenty to keep the public interested in the planets and what they might be like. In his Cosmos TV series, Carl Sagan recalled how, as young boy, he was enthralled by the Barsoom sagas of Edgar Rice Burroughs, even going so far as to stand in a field and try to wish himself to Barsoom (the name for Mars used by the Martians) in the same manner as series hero John Carter. Obviously, it never worked, but Sagan was undoubtedly not the only boy of the 1940s who would become a scientist in the 60s to do so.

Now, in the age when science has supplanted science fiction, today's children have no great space-based adventures to read and, should NASA cancel it planetary program, not even any current science, either, a loss whose immensity may not come to be realized in full for decades to come.

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