Why Space Is Making a Comeback
Opportunity, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER), landed on its namesake planet in late January 2004. Twelve years later, the rover — which was designed to work for just 90 days — is still there and operational. According to TechCrunch, the MER was expected to suffer massive dust buildup on its solar panels (its power source) and kill it three months after landing. Unbeknownst to NASA scientists, however, the planet frequently experiences “whirling columns of air” that clean the MER.
This 12-year anniversary is, no doubt, a cause for celebration that most didn’t expect. But what may be more surprising is why again, in 2016, a year that has already seen the potential discovery of a new planet, the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, huge hype for an upcoming total eclipse, and The Martian nominated for a closet full of awards, we are once again, after several barren decades, fascinated with space.
The lust for space exploration began in the ’50s and ’60s. The Soviets were the first to have an unmanned object reach space successfully with Sputnik 1 in 1957. Four years later, in April 1961, the Soviets (again) were the first to have a man, Yuri Gagarin, reach space. Then the US really got involved. Stanley Kubrick released his polarizing film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and then, in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
In the decades that followed, there were a number of space milestones. NASA launched the first space shuttle mission in 1981, the Hubble Space Telescope became operational in 1990 and, in 1998, construction commenced on the first International Space Station. But in spite of this, the public’s fascination with space has wavered in the past few decades. Why? The simple answer is: money. Since the 1960s, the percentage of the federal budget allocated to NASA has dropped steadily, even if, according to the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), the Apollo era “demonstrated that an investment in space exploration enhances the technical capability of the entire nation in a way that pays dividends for decades and helps assure Americans’ quality of life.”
But now, space — and its funding — is back. In December 2015, the House and Senate passed a bill to provide NASA with nearly $19.3 billion. According to Space News, the total is $756 million over what the administration requested, and $1 billion more than what the Senate approved in June. Within NASA, the Space Launch System will receive $2 billion — “nearly 50 percent more than administration’s request,” according to Space News — and the Planetary Sciences Program will receive $1.6 billion, much of which will be used to fund a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
So what now? If the LPI is to be believed, Americans can expect a higher “quality of life.” But also, more space! Expect more SpaceX launches (and crashes), Instagrams from Scott Kelly, space lessons with Tim Peake and gripping blockbusters like Gravity and Interstellar. And, if we’re lucky with a few “whirling columns of air,” the current surge in investment will lead to decades of galactic use.