In defense of a balanced space portfolio

I came away from our preview of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission feeling that the search for planets beyond our solar system should stand on equal footing with anything NASA does. That does not necessarily equate to equal dollars compared to other endeavors, but it suggests a firm place in a balanced portfolio of NASA space science and exploration.

The Trump administration’s NASA budget proposal for 2019 confirms that the competition for dollars is going to be fierce, given the palpable excitement over the possibility of returning astronauts to the moon, reaching Mars in the 2030s and robotically exploring Jupiter’s moon Europa. The administration would end funding for development of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, whose construction was the “top-priority recommendation” of the U.S. Decadal Survey astronomy and astrophysics committee in 2010. WFIRST would take a broader look at the cosmos than the James Webb Space Telescope and put a spare 2.4-meter spy telescope mirror to work searching for exoplanets and unraveling the mysteries of dark energy and supernovas.

Excitement, of course, is subjective, but I would submit that searching for Earthly worlds is as compelling an endeavor as hunting for fossils on Mars or trying to figure out the origins of the moon. We tell ourselves that human missions to these places will produce more than knowledge, that we’ll open up commercial opportunities and put ourselves on a path to becoming a multiplanetary species. It is indeed amazing to realize that we could become extraterrestrials.

That said, we don’t know for sure that sustained human exploration in deep space, let alone colonization, will be possible given our human biology, the costs of such missions and our penchant for competing as nations rather than collaborating. If the country that led the way to the moon can’t join other nations to clean up Earth’s atmosphere, how are we ever going to lead something as complex as an international mission to Mars? As exciting as this vision of exploration is, its feasibility is an open question.

That’s why a rich variety of research and development and operational missions is so important. Consider it an insurance policy in case we can’t break the surly bonds as entirely as we might like. We would have plenty of good things going on, from sending robots to other worlds to developing technologies for exotic space telescopes capable of viewing planets beyond our solar system.

If the TESS mission goes as planned, it could be instructive about the value of a balanced portfolio. The $200 million mission will come with a multiplier effect. Planet hunters could find seven times more exoplanets in star observations from TESS than they’ve found so far with the Kepler Space Telescope. TESS also would add value to the innovative but wildly over-budget Webb telescope, which will try to detect atmospheric spectra from planetary targets identified by TESS.

Editor’s note: At the top of this page is a NASA artist’s rendering of the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, which the Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget would end funding for.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

In defense of a balanced space portfolio