NASA’s Audacious Journey

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When NASA was created in 1958, manned space travel was a daring idea that challenged the nation and the human imagination. Half a century later, critics of President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 NASA budget make the space agency sound like a dusty old shop, ready to close its doors and abandon plans “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Casting NASA in this light is to ignore one of its most audacious, innovative and successful programs — the Space Science Enterprise.

Ever since Galileo raised his telescope to the sky 400 years ago, science has had a dual role: to challenge our perceptions of our place in the cosmos, and to challenge our technologies to push back the limits of the impossible in the pursuit of knowledge. The pursuit of space science gives NASA a purpose and a mission.

For the last 50 years, NASA spacecraft have probed the farthest reaches of the universe uncovering a sky filled with distant galaxies. Just within a single point in the sky, no bigger than you can see through a drinking straw, the Hubble Space Telescope found 10,000 galaxies. Through NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, we have seen black holes in the center of nearly every galaxy. By using observations from space, we have learned that within our own galaxy there may be a billion other planetary systems. We have even taken a picture of a planet around another star some 25 light-years from Earth.

Within a few years, the NASA Kepler mission may provide the first definitive evidence of other Earth-like planets. The 30-year-old spacecraft Voyager, traveling at 36,000 miles an hour, is about to become the first man-made object to cross into interstellar space. NASA probes have seen water geysers on a moon of Saturn, dug up water on Mars, produced 3-D images of violent solar storms blasting toward Earth, and perhaps most crucially of all revealed the fragility of our planet by sending back pictures of the gaping hole in our ozone layer and the diminishing ice sheets across our poles.

Amid all the hand-wringing about the future of human spaceflight, NASA is conducting a robust science program that will continue to inspire a nation.

Last year, when the astronauts returned for the last time to the Hubble Space Telescope, they performed the most audacious series of spacewalks NASA has ever undertaken to upgrade and repair Hubble — the “people’s telescope.” The nation stopped to watch, with the video topping the YouTube hit list. The first images from the newly refurbished telescope graced the pages of nearly every major newspaper on the planet, reflecting the public’s excitement of a new era of Hubble discoveries.

NASA’s science program has a well-defined direction and a purpose: to explore our universe and share that knowledge for the benefit of the citizens of planet Earth.

In four years, NASA and its international partners will be launching the James Webb Space Telescope, named after the second administrator of NASA, who insisted that science be a core part of the agency. It will be the largest and most complex space telescope any nation has put into space. From its frigid perch a million miles from Earth, this second-generation Hubble will send back pictures of the early universe we have only been able to imagine. And for the first time in human history, we may be able to detect signs of life on a planet around another star.

As scientists, we want NASA to have ambitions for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The new rockets that will be required to enable humans to venture beyond the bounds of Earth orbit are the same machines that will allow us to send sophisticated robots to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and explore the mysterious oceans we believe are lurking beneath the ice of moons Europa or Enceladus. We want astronauts to voyage farther into space and do what no one has done before. As we learn what it takes for people to survive in the weightless environment of deep space, we can take advantage of the partnership between science, technology and human space exploration to allow us to assemble large X-ray telescopes to probe the mysterious event horizons around black holes where time and space are stretched beyond recognition. We could point even more ambitious telescopes assembled by astronauts and robots to search for signs of life around other stars. This remote sensing of other solar systems may allow us to answer one of the great questions humans have asked for millennia: “Are we alone in the universe?”

As Congress and the American people ponder the future of NASA, let us keep in mind how the space age has transformed technology, and our view of our planet and ourselves. For the last half-century, NASA has been at the forefront of the scientific exploration of the cosmos. Let’s keep it there.

 

Matt Mountain is director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. John Grunsfeld is deputy director of the institute and a former NASA astronaut who flew three missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.