WASHINGTON DC – Under Donald Trump – America’s gaze shifted more strongly to human missions to the moon and to Mars. Will that focus continue under President Joe Biden? How can NASA expect to fare under Biden?
Here is some context. In 2017, Trump appointed Jim Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, to run NASA. The Congress – and the science and space communities – were caught off guard because NASA is typically run by a scientist or a former astronaut or other apolitical space expert. Bridenstine was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2018, more than seven months after his appointment. Despite his lack of space or science background, in two years as NASA administrator he appeared to gain the respect of many. Immediately after Biden’s election, however, in early November 2020, Bridenstine announced he would resign.
More context. The wonderful missions out into our solar system that we hear so much about – the much-loved Mars fleet, New Horizons’ dramatic sweep past Pluto, Cassini’s 13 years at Saturn and so on – are robotic missions. The workhorse missions to understand our own Earth and sun are robotic missions. There’s been a decades-long attempt to balance the smaller robotic missions like these, which bear so much fruit, with the bigger, flashier, more expensive missions that could carry human beings into the solar system. The decision to launch a Cassini or a New Horizons has to be made decades in advance; indeed, some of the most visible and stirring robotic missions of this century so far were the lifetime work of scientists begun in the last decades of the 20th century. Why can’t we have both kinds of missions? Why indeed? But it does seem that – in terms of the space program since it began in the late 1950s – the focus has shifted between human missions and robotic missions. That’s just something to bear in mind.
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