I knew things would be ok once I saw the line.
It was 1:45pm on Tuesday, July 15th, more than an hour away from the start of The Planetary Society's special event on Capitol Hill: The Lure of Europa. I had just arrived at our room in the House of Representatives' Rayburn office. It's a pretty large room, capable of seating over a hundred people and forty representatives. I wanted it to feel full for our panel of expert scientists and House members to show the true public support for Europa.
So when I saw that people had begun to line up early for the best seats, my worries eased: we would have enough people to fill the room. I went inside to prep, setting up large matte posters from the July 2014 National Geographic cover story on Europa. When I poked my head outside the room again about half an hour later, I saw this:
The line had grown. Our aggressive outreach to the public and congressional staff had paid off.
The Planetary Society has long-advocated for a dedicated mission to explore Europa. Last year's detection of massive water plumes spewing forth from its south pole had reinvigorated our focus in advocacy this year. Then, in July, National Geographic featured Europa and the search for life on its cover. The summer is when NASA begins to prepare its fiscal year 2016 budget, too. The potent combination of all of these factors led us to choose now as the time to raise awareness in Congress about the exciting possibilities of exploring this watery moon.
We opened the doors a little before 3pm and the crowd streamed in. Our CEO Bill Nye was there to greet them, as was the mini-exhibition of stunning large-format photography from the National Geographic article. The crowed used every seat available, filling the committee dias, standing in the back of the room, and sitting on the floor.
We had a wonderful panel of speakers there to discuss the lure of Europa, including a bipartisan mix of House members, the current Chairman of the House Science Committee, the Chief Scientist of NASA, and one of the top Europa scientists in the country.
We approached the topic systematically: Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA's Chief Scientist, talked about the what: What is Europa? What is so interesting about it and how does that fit into NASA's overall goals of scientific exploration? Dr. Robert Pappalardo, the Europa Study Scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discussed the how: How can we explore Europa with current technology? How do we answer the questions about habitability and life? How do we get there? And Bill Nye reminded us all of the why: Why do we explore? Why do such questions stir us so? Why should we go?
We also were fortunate to have three sitting House members speak in support of Europa, astrobiology, and planetary exploration. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) is the Chairman of the House Science Committee and a strong supporter of astronomy, space science, and astrobiology. His office wall is graced by a picture of the Hubble Deep Field, and he has shown strong commitment to Europa and Mars over the years.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a staunch supporter of Europa and sits on the powerful Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee on Appropriations, which governs NASA's funding every year. He has been crucial in providing funding for recent Europa concept studies.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) is also a strong supporter of planetary exploration. He made important points about a balanced program, which includes the exploration of Mars and the outer planets, and decried recent cuts to the program made by the White House.
It really was a stellar lineup. The crowd sat rapt, with the vast, vast majority staying the entire one hour and forty minute event. We had great questions about Europa. We could only answer a few, but had spent some time earlier in the day answering questions about Europa on Reddit, which became the most popular post on the site within minutes.
The final question we took was from an older man in the crowd. He had worked at NASA for many years but had been long retired. He talked about how he had tried to get a mission to explore Europa many years ago. As he looked out to the crowd of hundreds, he admonished us all: "it's time we go."
Hard to argue with that.