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It really is the small blessings that count. In spite of my apocalyptic admonitions last month regarding everybody’s favorite Great White North Tea Partier heading the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, it would appear that next year’s budget may be allocating more resources to NASA than it did last year. Texas voters naturally have a vested interest in keeping the space program alive and well, so kudos to Cruz for serving his constituency. For science!


... And money! But it’s money for science, so the root of all evil is no doubt balanced out by the good it will bring. And what good would that be? First, NASA’s highest (projected) budget since 2010 provides a substantial bump toward work on the Space Launch System, our long-overdue replacement for the retired Space Shuttles. The money couldn’t come at a better time, as last month’s attempt by SpaceX at a soft landing for its booster rocket resulted in a fiery crash. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has touted an additional 12 missions over the course of this year — the next to come this Sunday — with the long-term goal of creating a rocket that can be re-launched indefinitely. The path to widely-travelable space is still a star in the distance, but we’re getting there.

The crown jewel of this stellar stimulus: the Europa Clipper mission, which will scan and survey under Europa’s icy surface for a widely hypothesized ocean of water that may contain life. Finding life — even better, finding it in our own solar system — would rank among the greatest scientific accomplishments of all time. The potential information we could find in Europa’s oceans can give us clues or even answers about our own origins. We’ve discovered numerous exoplanets in the past that could conceivably contain water or even life, but Europa is the only body that we have a remote possibility of exploring due to its proximity to Earth. The unquenchable human quest for cosmic water will start after the budget is passed.

In the meantime, NASA is also priming to launch the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018 and is committed to placing an astronaut on Mars by 2030. The condition of NASA is, without equivocation, “strong” according to NASA Chief Charles Bolden. The White House must agree, since it is finally pulling for an amelioration of the agency’s chronic underfunding.

While calling for a budget increase is a positive sign in itself, the larger victory for NASA rests in the general mindset of Americans, who have at least a somewhat renewed trust in science. The endless cycle of underfunding by the government and weak returns from NASA is on track to end, if NASA can have a strong showing this year with the additional money. Space may be a vacuum, but at least the new budget suggests that the government doesn’t think it sucks too badly.


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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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