Opinion Columns & Blogs

Stunning Pluto visit shows what NASA can still attain

The first detailed glimpse of Pluto was a stunner: A mottled, multicolored orb, shimmering 3 billion miles from Earth. It has craters, “great mounds,” a mysterious dark belt along the equator – even suggestions of snowfall.

The photos came from the NASA spacecraft New Horizons, which has reached the outskirts of the solar system after a nine-year journey. By almost any measure, the mission is already a success, and serves as a fitting capstone for the era of exploration that the U.S. began half a century ago. The next space age will probably look quite different – private enterprise can play a greater role, and NASA should let it – but it will be an exhilarating one all the same.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on NASA’s latest achievement. Traveling at more than 30,000 mph, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. At about $700 million, it was a modest expense by space-faring standards. And its measurements may yet yield crucial clues about how the early solar system evolved and how life began on Earth. The U.S. is now the only country to have visited every planet in the solar system (Pluto’s unconscionable downgrading to a “dwarf planet” notwithstanding).

Interest in space nowadays is increasingly commercial. Intrepid entrepreneurs ply the heavens. Satellite start-ups are pursuing intriguing new business opportunities. At the same time, the thrill of exploration remains. The possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe looks increasingly plausible. And NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered hundreds of new planets beyond the solar system – some of them very much like our own. Space hasn’t looked this interesting in a generation.

Which makes articulating a vision for the U.S. space program all the more important. NASA’s next major ambition – getting people to Mars – is electrifying, yet the plan to get there is expensive, behind schedule and excessively vague. A more realistic accounting of the costs involved, which seem certain to stretch into the hundreds of billions over the next two decades, is vital.

More to the point, if the U.S. wants a sustained presence on Mars, it will need the help of private enterprise. Companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have made substantial progress in pushing down the costs of rocketry. Occasional (and useful) failures aside, they’re also doing commendable work supplying the International Space Station. SpaceX and Boeing intend to start ferrying humans there by 2017. There’s good reason to think that such companies – under NASA’s supervision – could eventually develop far cheaper ways to get to Mars. Such an arrangement could even serve as a blueprint for the next era of space exploration.

The New Horizons mission is the latest confirmation that the American space program is still capable of accomplishing great things. It shouldn’t be the last.