On July 14 of this year, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7,800 miles of Pluto, after traversing 3 billion miles since its 2006 launch, and it began sending back astonishing and detailed images of mountains and plains composed of ice from the last planet in our system to be explored. But, for me, this was not the most newsworthy aspect of its mission.
The science involved in accomplishing this feat is amazing. New Horizons is an engineering marvel, with radioisotope power generation, sophisticated batteries, optical and plasma scientific instruments, complex navigation and telemetry, and so on. Its primary missions—all successfully completed—were to map the surface of Pluto and its main moon, Charon; to characterize the geology and composition of these bodies; and to analyze the atmosphere of these bodies. In the process, New Horizons has also shed light on the formation of our solar system.
It took an army of scientists and engineers working for over a decade to design, build, and manage the probe. Of course all these people, and many others around the world, took enormous pleasure and satisfaction, and experienced tremendous wonder, in seeing the resulting photographs and data from so far away.
We succeed in this kind of exploration of our solar system so reliably nowadays that this sort of satisfaction seems to us routine, feels like just a bump in the road of our endless inquiry. But the exploration of Pluto is, alas, just a bump in the road in another, rather more dispiriting way.
Most Americans (58 percent in a Pew survey conducted in 2011) are supportive of space exploration, valuing both its contributions to science and to national pride. And most Americans (59 percent) think that sending astronauts into space is desirable (in a 2015 Pew survey). Yet, Americans and their politicians appear unwilling to spend more money on this; results from a 2014 General Social Survey indicate that just 23 percent of Americans think we should spend more. By contrast, 70 percent of Americans think we should spend more on education and 57 percent think we should spend more on health. NASA’s budget has been roughly constant in real dollars since 1985 (it is now 0.5 percent of the federal budget), but it is well below its peak in 1965, when it was over 4 percent of the federal budget (and it’s below even the 1 percent level of 1990).
The captivating photos of Pluto occupied a week or so in the news cycle in the middle of the summer, and we’ve moved on. What really amazes me about the news from Pluto is that there are not more people who find this accomplishment astonishing, that there is not even more sustained support for space exploration. NASA’s entirely sensible push to make both manned and unmanned space exploration reliable, standardized, and safe has also had the unfortunate side effect of making it routine and even boring for many people. For me, this fact— brought into relief once again by the mapping of Pluto—is the real newsworthy part of this discovery.
My paternal grandfather, who was born in Greece in the 1890s (and was orphaned not long after), used to tell me that he simply could not believe that he had heard about the first heavier-than-air flight of the Wright brothers when it happened in 1903 and that he had also watched the moon landing in 1969. This was the same man who fought in World War I and who would tell me stories about how his unit was transferred from Ankara to Kiev on horseback “when the Bolsheviks revolted” and about how, during World War II, he kept his family alive in Athens “when the Nazis invaded.” But space exploration interested him more because, well, it was so much more optimistic. Humans went from riding on a beach with a plane made of canvas and bicycle parts to traversing space with a lunar lander in sixty-six years. It amazed him, having witnessed it first hand—and the pace and sheer wonder astonish me even as I write this.
I realize of course that the great accomplishments in space exploration of the 1960s and 70s were largely motivated by the Cold War. I realize as well that many people are now arguing that private enterprise should take over space exploration. And I know that commitment to space exploration is low because many see better uses for our money. Is it better to vaccinate children, care for the poor, or invest in public health or medical research, rather than invest in space exploration? Part of my response is the customary one that science and discovery are the ultimate drivers of our wealth and security. But my main response is that this is a false dichotomy. The real question is whether we would rather wage war or colonize Mars. Which would be, and should be, more newsworthy? In this, I think my grandfather had it right.