NASA's latest Mars mission experienced a picture perfect landing on May 25. The stationary Phoenix lander has two primary objectives: to study the history of water in the Martian arctic, where it is located, and search for evidence of a habitable zone by assessing the biological potential of ice and soil. The Phoenix uses a robotic arm to dig in the Martian soil, retrieving soil and ice samples to be analyzed by the lander. It then relays information and images to NASA's Deep Space Network of antennas via the Mars Odyssey and Reconnaissance orbiters. The Phoenix mission represents a huge scientific step forward; however, there are naysayers who believe our time and money would be better spent solving problems on Earth rather than investing in space exploration. Negative impressions of space exploration are born not of hostility but of a lack of adequate information.
Fueled by media coverage that tends to focus on NASA's failures and gloss over its successes, negative public images are easily formed. The general impression is that NASA's missions produce a minuscule amount of scientific data, of dubious consequence, at an enormous cost to taxpayers. This is a terribly misguided perspective; yet with opponents dispersing easily regurgitated, simple, and frankly inaccurate information, advocates of space exploration have their work cut out for them.
The first step is education. Advocates must attempt to illustrate that space exploration does not distract from problems on Earth - it may, in fact, provide solutions to them. Phoenix lander will study the climate of Mars, which went from hot and wet to dry and cold. Information gathered on this mission could offer insight regarding Earth's future and the current climate crisis. Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars rovers and arguably the most successful mission thus far, are carrying science that exceeds even the most hopeful predictions. Expected to operate for only a few months, each continues to thrive and explore four years later, relaying new scientific discoveries daily. These discoveries may influence a new generation to look to the stars, sparking an interest in science and engineering at a time when interest in these fields is desperately needed.
Despite the success of these missions, their continued operation taxes an already tight NASA budget. The agency will retire its shuttle fleet in the next two years, and it plans to launch a new Moon ship, the Orion crew capsule and its Ares I and Ares V rockets, by 2015. The Moon mission has forced NASA to take on more than its current budget can afford. It is imperative for advocates of space exploration to rally for an increase in funding. Between the escalating cost of war and increased pressure placed on social programs as a result of retiring baby boomers, our next president will be forced to reconsider NASA's exploration plans. Fortunately, both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees have spoken favorably about NASA, though neither has clarified the fate of such exploration.
Congress is considering a $2 billion increase in NASA funding over the next two years, which would provide the agency the opportunity of making the lunar mission viable by late 2013. Still, even with bipartisan support in congress, President Bush has threatened to veto such a spending increase. It is critical that we not limit the aspiration of scientists and the potential of their programs. Policymakers must stop discussing ways to cut NASA's budget and begin searching for methods to increase funding. The spirit of exploration is the core of scientific achievement. Potential solutions to current issues and the imagination of future generations depend on continued support of and greater funding for NASA's space-exploration missions.