I've had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Porco on several occasions. She is the leader of the Imaging Science Team for the monumental Cassini spacecraft which has orbited since July 2004, and is responsible for the picture that I chose (with a lot of post-facto agreement) as the best astronomical image of 2006. She is a formidable person. Her talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 4 last year was inspiring, and not just because of the images she showed: she lives the life of a cutting-edge scientist, and she clearly not only loves it but wants to inspire others as well.
All this was on my mind when I read her opinion piece in the New York Times today (free registration required). She writes on the 45th anniversary of John Glenn becoming the first American inspace to orbit the Earth, all those long years ago. It's an interesting anniversary, coming as it is on the cusp of NASA's future. The Shuttle is a few years from retirement, the space station nearly completed, and plans for a new and vastly more capable space transport system starting to congeal.
We're headed to the Moon, if all goes well. I think I speak for most scientists when I say there are more treasures beyond as well to which we hope the future provides us access. A powerful rocket can take us anywhere in the solar system, and do it better and faster than we can now. For the first time in decades, what is holding us back is not technology, but the will to do it.
Will we do it?
The thrust of Carolyn's essay could have come from my own keyboard. I never found myself disagreeing with her, not once. She has harsh words for the Shuttle and for the Space Station, words I've used myself on this blog and elsewhere-- but I'm not the head of a team funded by NASA. Her words speak a lot louder because of that. Certainly many scientists have spoken out against the drain of manned spaceflight versus robotic explorers, but there have been many of us not only willing to compromise but eager to do so. The solar system is big, and on other worlds there is room for the prints of both astronauts' boots and robot's pads. The rockets that will carry our sons and daughters to the Moon will be able to throw our scientific payloads at fantastic speeds to Mars and the outer planets, to asteroids and comets, to moons of all flavors.
Exploration and science are not mutually exclusive -- they are two sides of the same coin. We need both, and we can afford both. We just have to make the right decisions.
This is what Carolyn says, and says very well in her essay. I agree with her, as do, I suspect, many other scientists. The next few years for NASA are critical. Will we make the right decisions?