By Robinson Meyer
Suppose you’re a planetary scientist. You operate an unmanned spacecraft, surveying a distant moon in our solar system. Years of funding, engineering work, and long-distance space travel have all come together, and at last this machine—to which you have devoted so much of your life—is in place. And it’s just made an incredible discovery.
Maybe it’s a new kind of crater. Or an odd, unexpected mineral. Or the holy grail: liquid water.
It’s thrilling news—years of your career, vindicated! Now you have to wait. And lobby. And hope for the funding to come through. And wait for the next craft to get there.
As Brent Streetman, a researcher at the aerospace technology firm Draper Laboratories, told me earlier this week: “Once we find interesting things, there’s no way to access them. We have to wait for the next cycle of space exploration to that planet.”
Indeed, the NASA scientists tasked with extending humanity’s reach into space have two very different jobs. The first is posed by space and solved by engineering: It’s the actual work of sending tools, instruments, and (sometimes) humans millions of miles, to another place in space, intact. But the second one can be both much more mundane and much more infuriating: It’s the ongoing work of securing funding for space exploration from a capricious and dysfunctional Congress.
A new experimental spacecraft design anticipates the second problem with the techniques of the first. Draper Laboratories received funding this week from NIAC, NASA’s innovative concepts fund, for a two-phase space probe—technology that could both survey a planet and send instruments to its surface. ...more