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This Is Exactly the Wrong Time to Retreat from Space

February 20, 2018

At the dawn of the space age, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to set foot on the moon. The quest was grand, but the reason was simple: "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained…" Seven years later, on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounded across the lunar surface as Michael Collins orbited above.

We now sail the seas of our solar system. Rovers gambol across Mars, the Cassini spacecraft just plunged through a gap in the rings of Saturn, and the Voyager spacecraft soars into interstellar space, more than 13 billion miles away, still sending back signals to its home planet, our Earth.

These accomplishments reflect the insatiable desire of human beings to learn about the worlds around them, to understand their place in the universe. America has been a leader in these grand explorations because we have been unafraid to dream. We have both the technical know-how and the commitment to succeed.

But the age of American leadership in space science may be coming to an end. Proposed budgets drastically cut support for telescopes that tell us about the universe's origins and spacecraft that trace the changes on our home planet. At the same time, the United States as a country has stood on the sidelines as nations across the world develop the next generation of land-based optical observatories.

The irony is that rarely has there been a more exciting and promising time for space science. Telescopes pointing deep into space detect thousands of planets orbiting far away suns. Life may reside in the ocean worlds of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn or be revealed in the ancient history of Mars. Gravitational wave observatories probe the inner workings of black holes, like the one at the center of our galaxy. We have the opportunity to understand the origins of dark matter and dark energy, which constitute 95% of the universe, but still remain mysterious.

America has been a remarkable engine of innovation, creating knowledge for the ages and solving society's problems today. We have the talent and the entrepreneurial spirit to build on our grand history of discovery. We need only the vision and the will.


An excerpt from this piece was published as a Letter to the Editor in The Washington Post.