Emily LakdawallaSep 09, 2010

NASA: NOT Grounded

So I just received my "special anniversary issue" of Discover magazine, to which I've been a subscriber since, I think, 1986. I was elated when I saw that their 30th anniversary feature article, "How Far We've Come," a group effort by, I think, 13 of their regular writers. My elation was because it started with Phil Plait's contribution, "Worlds Unveiled." In the opening section of an article describing the transformation of our perspective on everything in science and engineering from construction at the atomic scale to SETI, Phil wrote about how, over the past three decades, the solar system has turned from a graveyard of dead worlds to a dynamic place where there are geysers on Enceladus, landslides on Mars, and where Jupiter gets whacked regularly by meteorites. This changed view of our solar system has resulted almost entirely from unmanned missions. Phil wrote: "Many people think that Apollo represented the glory days of America's space program, but you'd have to qualify that with the word manned. The unmanned program is having its heyday right now." Hear hear.

My elation turned to frustration eight page turns later. In a sidebar titled "Who Asked for That?" Wendy Marston wrote the following under the heading "NASA Grounded": "There is no American manned space effort anymore....Apparently the Russians won the space race after all."

NASA Grounded?? The Russians won??? The manned program is in crisis, to be sure, and we need stronger leadership from both the executive and legislative branches to steer the manned program out of its current doldrums and into a bold future that looks beyond the Shuttle era. But I'm sick and tired of people equating "NASA" with the manned space program, and failing to realize the bounty of amazing discoveries being made through the eyes of the 20-odd robots that we Americans have built and are currently operating across the solar system. Like the Planetary Society's leaders, I believe that our (and this time "our" means "humanity's," not just America's) space program must include both manned and unmanned components, and that the two must work hand in hand. But I'm frustrated again and again by the lack of respect and recognition for what our robotic missions -- and all the men and women who work for NASA and universities and aerospace contractors who make contributions to our unmanned program -- are accomplishing.

Kudos to you, Discover editorial team, for recognizing the paradigm-changing discoveries being made by our robotic explorers -- and shame on you for forgetting them, just eight pages later.

(Don't believe we're in our heyday? Just look at this visual graph of interplanetary probe activities.)

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