Millions of Americans swarm to — and often nearly overwhelm — the NASA server every time there is a landing. They are curious about the discoveries made on these missions and the questions we are tantalizingly close to answering: Was there life elsewhere in our solar system? Is there still?
We have never brought back anything from the Red Planet, but a sample return would allow us to conduct sophisticated tests that are impossible to accomplish remotely. Bringing back such a sample would also be vital to developing the technologies necessary to bring our astronauts back from Mars. Once the scientists and engineers who have overcome the enormous challenges of landing on Mars — the most specialized workforce on Earth — are allowed to disperse, it may be decades before their knowledge base and skill sets can be reassembled.
The public indignation at the savaging of the Mars program — outrage expressed by scientists, grass-roots organizations such as the Planetary Society and individuals in calls, e-mails and visits to Congress; social-media campaigns; and bake sales and even shoe shines to raise awareness — has prompted NASA officials to reconsider. We in Congress are doing our part: The House has moved to restore $88 million of the administration’s proposed cuts, and the Senate has moved to put back $100 million. It is likely that even more of the funds will be restored in the final appropriations legislation. The success of the Curiosity landing will only intensify the pressure on NASA leaders to move forward and not rest on the laurels of a Mars program built up by others.
NASA has gone back to the drawing board. It plans to release this month its Mars Re-plan Study, which it ordered after canceling its partnership with the Europeans. Then, a lot more than Mars will be at stake.
Without the excitement generated by these missions, our ability to attract a new generation of American students to choose scientific and technical careers will be seriously undermined. Profoundly important research and development and all the economic benefits it brings will be forsaken. And America will step back from its place of preeminence in planetary science, with Russia, China and Europe leading the new charge into space.
Last week, we won the gold. But where will we be in four years?