|On the heels of what one NASA official called
"one amazing year in planetary exploration," hundreds of planetary scientists
gathered at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late July to
discuss the latest results in their field of research. The 29th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of
the American Astronomical Society
brought together more than 700 scientists from around the world for a week of
presentations and discussions, including the latest on two highly successful missions.
While congratulating planetary scientists for their
work, particularly on the NEAR and Mars Pathfinder missions, NASA administrator Dan Goldin
reminded them that much more work was necessary for the scientists and the space agency to
reach Goldin's goal of fast, lightweight, inexpensive space science missions.
Speaking at the conference's
space policy night, Goldin said he saw dangerous signs that scientists and agency
officials, eager to protect their newfound success, were becoming more conservative and
moving away from innovative, but risky, missions. "The old folks are taking over
again," he warned.
Goldin expressed three concerns he had with the
state of planetary science research and its relationship with NASA. His first concern was
with the peer review process, where committees of scientists make decisions on the
scientific worthiness of various proposed spacecraft missions. Goldin feared these
committees of established scientists were too entrenched in the old way of doing business,
and needed to provide some "elbow room" for newer scientists willing to take
Goldin's second concern was the lack of
time and money devoted to developing knowledge that will be useful for missions five to 15
years down the road, as opposed to within the next five years. Such lack of foresight, he
said, has resulted in no new rocket engines developed in the U.S. in the last 25 years and
no high-speed optical communications for deep space missions, a situation Goldin
Goldin's third, and biggest concern, was over what
exactly planetary science should be. Noting the possible discovery of primitive life on
ancient Mars, and some of the tantalizing results from Galileo's observations of Europa,
Goldin felt that planetary science should have more of a life science bent to it. "If
we're searching for life," he asked the audience, "are there are life scientists
in the room?" Hardly a hand was raised.
To address this concern, Goldin called for the
creation of an "astrobiology institute" that would bring together planetary and
life scientists to study these and related problems. Such an institute, Goldin said, would
rely on "real people and virtual communications": the institute would be a
virtual creation, relying on the Next Generation Internet and other communications tools
to link together researchers at far-flung locations.
Goldin also urged that Earth science research, such
as the study of the Earth's atmosphere and comparison to the atmospheres of other worlds,
be integrated into planetary science. He called on JPL and Goddard Space Flight Center to
rectify this "huge mistake" and integrate the Earth into planetary science.
Despite these concerns, Goldin said great progress
in how planetary and space science missions are run today. In 1992 planetary science
missions were seen as spacecraft weighing thousands of kilograms, costing billions of
dollars, and taking many years to develop. Goldin thinks with missions like Pathfinder and
NEAR we are about one-fourth of the day to his goal of missions that weigh tens of
kilograms, cost tens of millions of dollars, and take a year from start to launch.
"My belief is that we are on the way to
changing who we are," he said. "I believe it's going to happen."