I realize that’s a bold headline, but give me a moment here to make my case. In case you have not followed NASA’s budget cutting of recent years, the Bush Administration has decided to favor manned exploration of the moon and hopefully Mars but that has meant cutting the much, much cheaper robotic exploration efforts. They have also tried to reign cost overruns on space missions, but ironically the yearly budget for these supposedly outrageously expensive space missions is much less than a day in Afghanistan or Iraq.
To make matters worse, the huge cost of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, Homeland Security etc. that the entire NASA budget, which is less than 1% of the US budget has be cut in total including manned missions, so at this special time in exploration history, the US falls behind in all areas, but robotic space missions worst of all.
The big casualty is a mission the US mission Europa, hopefully with a lander. Europa, you say? What’s the big deal? Where is it? Well, it’s a large moon of Jupiter (much more here). Of course, Jupiter has a bunch of moons, so why is Europa special?
It’s highly likely it has a large ocean of liquid water beneath it’s fractured icy surface. Not only is that incredibly amazing on it’s own but that would make it the only other place in our solar system, or for that matter, given all we know today, the only place in the universe we know is habitable for life, right now, today. Unlike Mars or other places, which might have been habitable millions or billions of years ago, that ocean on Europa could be teeming with life.
Or maybe not. It actually does not matter if the answer is yes or no to life. Either way, the discovery and exploration of Europa is huge, history-making, possibly the most important discovery in the history of our species.
American won’t be there to make that discovery. American Europa missions remain at best, paper dreams and at worst, not happening for generations. However, the Russian Space Agency has announced plans to join and support the European Space Agency, ESA, plans to launch and land on Europa, starting in 2015. That’s 7 years from today.
Barring a huge reversal and start very soon on a US mission, that means America will not lead the way to this destination. It can be argued that a marker of the fall of an empire is when it ceases to lead in exploration and innovation (e.g. Greece, Rome, UK). Given China’s rapid expansion into space and huge resources, a second Europa mission is more likely to come from them than the US. So that’s Europe, Russian, China and now possibly Japan taking the lead in exploring the solar system. Ouch.
I realize we have a new president coming soon but I don’t believe any of the candidates from any party has said much of anything about this. I simply think most people have no idea it matters.