What's Become of Just to See What's There?

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Venus Express is settling into its planned low polar orbit, another triumph of science and engineering, and no one on the project is yarning about looking for water or a good landing spot. Yet the mission just had to be given a little spin to make it fall into line with the times.

The Ancients Got It Wrong
We've known since about 1962 just how off the classical Greek and Roman astronomers were when they named the second planet in our solar system after the personification of romantic love and female beauty (unless they were being really sarcastic). The atmosphere of Venus is 90 × the density of Earth's and is 97% carbon dioxide. The surface temperature is about 900°F. Clouds of sulfuric acid are whipped around by 220 mph gales. Nope, we're not going to send any Space Cowboys up there soon!

Pure Science?
One reason Venus Express has received minimal ink in the popular press is that it's a European Space Agency project. Not NASA's. And, of course, Venus has never had the glitz of Mars. We've sent our own exploratory probes, most recently the Magellan mission launched in 1989 after much delay and with the helpful intervention of Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That one finished its work in 1994.

There has been an ominous redirection since then. To introduce it, let me relay one idea from NASA's liaison with the Venus Express project. The probe will look for data that could indicate current volcanic activity on the planet. "This is a key question for Venus, and could be important in understanding the climatic change on Earth," (emphasis mine), according to NASA planetary scientist Adriana Ocampo. All those sensors will give us hints about home?

What's This Redirection?
Astronomy is the purest of all sciences. It is not helpful for warfare, nor for homeland security, nor for eradicating disease. It simply is, and I nearly named this essay "Astronomy, the Useless But Not Pointless Science." Astronomy has another distinction: It is the only scientific discipline in which amateurs are welcome and to which they regularly contribute discoveries that are eagerly embraced by the professional community.

Every other field has been lately given an assignment—and a rather short deadline to finish it. (I am reminded of the alchemists, who knew very well they could not transmute base metals into gold but who had to say they were closing in on the job so the king's purse strings would be loosened enough to let these proto-chemists do some Real Science.)

What today's redirection boils down to is a one-eighty from What's Out There? and What Happens If I Do This? into something closer to product development. (Seinfeld reference: "Not that there's anything wrong with that.") But there's everything wrong with "that" when "that" begins to get the hog's share of funding.

Skewed Priorities
We read and hear about this and that project's receiving grants. The reality is that the pure research that underlies technological advances, and the speculative engineering work that once went on at Bell Telephone Laboratories and other illustrious facilities, is drying up, along with the dollars that kept it going. You don't believe me? As I was writing this I came across a particularly eloquent—and short—essay by Ken Wise, director of the Engineering Research Center of Wireless Integrated MicroSystems, a consortium of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Michigan Tech. Reading it had two effects on me: I was delighted to see my observations validated by Dr. Wise, and dejected for the same reason.

The Real Stinger
Here's a little something I've been saving. While NASA's climate scientists are hitching a figurative ride on Venus Express, NASA officials back here are saying that there won't be enough money for the proposed Earth-observing satellites that would yield direct data about our own climate. Those dollars look likely to be absorbed by the International Space Station, the space shuttle, and, of course, the notion of punching a giant hole into one of our Moon's polar regions in hopes of producing a geyser of water vapor.

And don't forget there are still murmurs of sending a manned expedition to Mars. I hope whoever lands there stays out of the way of Spirit and Opportunity.