The answer to that question is outlined by the following principles which guide the organization's space policy and advocacy efforts. They are organized around the three core enterprises of The Planetary Society as outlined in its strategic framework: exploring worlds, finding life, and defending Earth.
These principles were approved by The Planetary Society's Board of Directors and represent the official focus of the organization's Space Policy & Advocacy program. This program is responsible for advancing the interests of The Planetary Society and its members within government.
I. Core Enterprise: Explore Worlds
(a) Space organizations should explore worlds beyond Earth—both in our solar system and in planetary systems beyond.
"Never again will the planets be mere wandering points of light," wrote Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan, "they will forever after be worlds crying out for exploration and discovery." In 1980, when he wrote those words, humanity was completing its initial reconnaissance of the solar system: U.S. and Soviet spacecraft had visited Venus, Mercury, and the Moon; the Viking mission had landed on Mars; and the Voyager spacecraft had begun its survey of the outer planets. But the "adventure of the planets," Sagan contested, had just begun.
He was right. In the decades since, dozens of missions refined and expanded humanity's knowledge of the solar system. Robotic spacecraft mapped water ice nestled in Mercury's poles, traversed the sandy plains of Mars, landed on the frozen dunes of Titan, and revealed the mountain ranges of Pluto. In doing so, humanity confirmed the origins of its solar system, learned of the havoc wrought by catastrophic climate change on Mars and Venus, reveled in the wondrous variety of alien landscapes on other worlds, and discovered tantalizing clues to habitability beyond Earth. The adventure continues.
But, as is often the case, the initial exploration of our neighbor worlds raised more questions than answers. We discovered that distant moons in the outer solar system host vast oceans of liquid water—could life exist there, protected under the ice? We mapped the battered surfaces of asteroids and comets. Do we owe Earth's carbon-based life to the raw organic materials delivered by these objects? Astronomers discovered thousands of planets orbiting distant suns. What insights can we glean from these hyper-distant worlds by studying similar ones in our own cosmic backyard? There are so many questions yet to answer.
Responding to this call requires political action. Exploration is not a guaranteed output of a society. And while the advanced technology required to explore the planets exists—or can be developed—deploying that technology in the service of scientific inquiry requires smart policy and ongoing public investment. There is no business incentive for exploring these distant worlds, no market to break into, no resources ready to exploit and sell back home. The exploration of these worlds will not happen on its own. It will only happen through the concerted efforts of nations and their citizens who share ideals of curiosity, scientific inquiry, and peaceful deployment of high technology.
As a consequence, few endeavors are more noble in their intentions. The practice of planetary exploration ensures peaceful, collaborative, and inspiring scientific investigations of the cosmos. The data returned from these investigations are made public, freely, for the benefit of humankind. The entire world may participate in the adventure of the planets, celebrate new discoveries, and grapple with the implications. This is why The Planetary Society will work every day to ensure that spacefaring nations of the world prioritize the exploration of the planets.
(b) NASA's human spaceflight program should address priorities set by the scientific community and pursue the horizon goal of landing humans on Mars (ref: human spaceflight principles).
Learning how to live and work on worlds beyond Earth is an important goal for an advanced society, not just to ensure a long term future for the human species, but in the immediate political benefits gained from the peaceful cooperation of nations common in major human spaceflight projects. However, human spaceflight is not an end unto itself. It must have a clear purpose in order to justify the public investment that it requires. Opportunities for scientific discovery can provide that purpose in the near-term, but only if they are incorporated into early mission design and planning. The Planetary Society will work to ensure that scientific discovery—with goals defined by experts in relevant fields—will serve as a fundamental motivation for publicly-funded human spaceflight endeavors.
Mars is the logical goal for human spaceflight in the coming decades; it possesses an atmosphere, has sufficient surface gravity for human comfort, hosts widespread and abundant deposits of water ice, and preserves a multibillion-year geologic record of the history of our solar system. It may support extraterrestrial life or have done so in the past. For these reasons, The Planetary Society will work to support human exploration of worlds beyond Earth with Mars as the goal.
(c) NASA should prioritize funding for planetary and exoplanetary science and exploration, following the recommendations made by the National Academy's' space science decadal survey reports.
The Planetary Society recognizes that NASA is a multi-mission agency with numerous responsibilities defined by Congress. However, as a matter of organizational principle, The Planetary Society believes that human and robotic planetary exploration (with cross-cutting goals in the search for life and planetary defense) should be the priority within a balanced NASA portfolio.
For robotic missions, The Planetary Society will support recommendations made by the National Academies' decadal survey process, which represents the consensus opinion of the relevant scientific communities. For human exploration, The Planetary Society will work to enact policies in line with its human spaceflight principles.
While The Planetary Society will focus its advocacy efforts on issues related to its core enterprises, we are, at heart, a pro-science, pro-education organization. These values compel us to support space science efforts writ large, educational outreach efforts to the public, and ensure the integrity of NASA and other public space organizations.
(d) NASA should aggressively invest in scientific research, new technology, and infrastructure to enable planetary exploration. In particular, NASA and the Department of Energy must maintain a stable supply of Pu-238 fuel for spacecraft.
Every planetary mission is the result of years, if not decades, of research, technology development, and workforce training. In order to maintain our ability to push the boundaries of human knowledge in our solar system and beyond, we must establish and maintain the necessary infrastructure, continue technology investments, and support a skilled workforce.
To this end, The Planetary Society will advocate for investments in basic research and technology development to enable the future generation of exploratory missions. We will also vigorously defend and promote funding for scientific research and professional development. Planetary missions mean nothing if there is not a skilled and well-supported scientific community able to interpret the data, generate new hypotheses, and provide expert advice to guide the program.
The availability of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) for future missions is of particular importance. Pu-238 is a non-weaponizable, energy-dense material that, when used to power spacecraft, enables missions to places where solar power is not practical. Plutonium-238 naturally decays, becoming less effective at generating power over time. As a consequence, existing stockpiles must be continually refreshed. The Planetary Society will continue to advocate for public investment in the safe production of Pu-238 for use in peaceful missions of exploration.
II. Core Enterprise: Find Life
(a) The world's space agencies should work collaboratively to seek out past or present life in our solar system and to search for signatures of life in the cosmos.
The search for life is an apolitical activity that touches upon a common human experience. Is there life beyond Earth? Is it common, arising wherever and whenever there are appropriate chemical and environmental conditions? Or is it rare, the result of a series of unlikely events in this one place at this one time? Either answer provides a humbling perspective for humans, who not only are alive but self-aware.
Thanks to discoveries made by planetary exploration missions, we now know that our solar system hosts habitable environments beyond Earth. The Planetary Society will advocate for the exploration and characterization of past and present habitable environments. We will also work to promote the search for signatures of life in the cosmos, including exoplanets.
(b) The search for life should serve as a motivating, cross-cutting priority across existing science and exploration efforts.
The search for life presents a compelling opportunity for global cooperation. Searching for life elsewhere involves experts in a wide variety of fields, from physics to philosophy, and astronomy to zoology. Sharing expertise across disciplines and sharing resources among nations helps us all. The Planetary Society will argue for the search for life as a motivating priority among space organizations around the world, and to integrate the effort across disciplines as a unifying goal.
(c) NASA should increase investment in astrobiology research, particularly to establish conclusive signatures of life elsewhere.
NASA is the primary source of funding for astrobiology research in the United States. The Planetary Society will advocate for sufficient funding for theoretical and practical research in astrobiology, which will help refine detection techniques and assist in the interpretation of data returned from the next generation of planetary and astrophysical missions.
(d) Spacefaring nations and organizations should protect and preserve the ability to find life in the environments they explore.
The Outer Space Treaty, signed by over 200 nations, states that signatories should "avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies." Throughout history, humans have devastated ecosystems in the act of exploration, both accidentally and intentionally. We must learn from our mistakes and commit to doing better in the future.
Work by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine laid the groundwork for planetary protection policies that balance responsibility with the desire to explore. The Planetary Society will advocate for these recommendations and support scientifically-motivated guidelines for responsible planetary protection.
III. Core Enterprise: "Defend Earth"
(a) The nations of the world should work together to find and characterize dangerous near-Earth objects (NEOs).
Asteroids and comets passing near the orbit of Earth pose a serious risk to life and property. An impact could cause immeasurable damage and human suffering. The unpredictable nature of the asteroid threat is a global issue: every nation faces the threat of impact and therefore has an interest in determining their exposure to risk.
The Planetary Society will advocate for all nations to contribute to near-Earth object detection and characterization by supporting ongoing ground- and space-based detection and characterization efforts, open data-sharing, and disaster planning and coordination through the United Nations.
(b) Spacefaring nations should determine the effectiveness of various NEO deflection techniques.
An asteroid impact is, in theory, the only preventable large-scale natural disaster. Should a hazardous NEO be discovered early enough, its orbit can be shifted to eliminate the hazard via a number of methods. We should develop and test asteroid-deflection technology before we face an actual threat. It is in the world's interest to have a detailed understanding of the efficacy of various deflection techniques before a threat manifests.
The Planetary Society will advocate for ongoing technology development, theoretical analysis, and active tests of asteroid deflection techniques.
(c) All nations should coordinate, develop, and maintain global and intra-governmental readiness plans for mitigating and responding to a dangerous NEO.
The challenges of near-Earth object detection and orbit deflection concern all of Earth's nations. The United Nations provides a framework for planning a coordinated global response. The Planetary Society will encourage all able nations to participate in this system.
Within the United States, any response to a threatening NEO will involve multiple federal agencies. The Planetary Society will work to support ongoing intra-agency coordination and disaster planning to ensure a coordinated government response to any potential threat.
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