NASA Might Stop Exploring the Planets: Here's Why That's Terrible

When we explore other planets, we reap the benefits on Earth. (So do our our cell phones.)
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Saturn, as photographed by the Cassini probe in 2008 (NASA)

In the fall of 1997, a massive, unmanned rocket—one of the largest ever—took off on American soil, bound to Venus. It swung around that planet, entering deep-space so it could take advantage of the sun’s gravitational pull. Then it took a tour of the solar system, passing Venus again, Earth, and, a day before the new millennium began, Jupiter.

It kept flying and flying—until, on the first of July, 2004, its payload arrived in the orbit of Saturn.

And there the Cassini probe remains, taking observations, collecting data. Launched over a decade and a half ago, the spacecraft still works. It continues its mission of advancing science and informing us of our planetary neighborhood.

Except … except. If sequestration of the U.S. federal budget continues into 2014, NASA’s budget will lose hundreds of millions in funding. Today, according to early reports, agency leaders suggested to their employees that those cuts would come from the planetary sciences division. NASA might have to terminate the Cassini mission while it is still scientifically productive.

And there are countless more reasons why this is a bad idea. Space exploration supports us on Earth in countless ways, both quantifiable and intangible.

Software engineer Charlie Loyd (who’s also my friend) wrote a stream of tweets about why we so badly need planetary science and exploration. I think they lay out the case well. 

That last link goes to the Planetary Society’s guide on how to advocate for NASA’s budget. If you think we should explore space more fully, now’s the time to check their advice.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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