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Can We Jump-Start A New Space Age?

An artist's view of BoldlyGo's SCIM mission in which a probe would skim the Martian atmosphere capturing dust particles and returning them to Earth.
BoldlyGo Institute, Inc.
An artist's view of BoldlyGo's SCIM mission in which a probe would skim the Martian atmosphere capturing dust particles and returning them to Earth.

Jon Morse, former astrophysics division director at NASA, can remember the exact moment he knew things had to change.

It was the late spring of 2011. After one particularly long planning meeting, Morse headed to the elevators with some high-ranking budget officials. As they waited for the next car, Morse asked the officials about a draft plan he and his staff had been working on for months; its goal was implementation of recent National Research Council recommendations for a menu of exciting new space science missions. The plan, however, was going to require extra resources.

Morse says he can still remember the sting of their response. "[They] laughed, got on the elevator and said, 'Don't even bother.' Then the elevator doors closed."

That was when Morse decided he'd seen enough doors closing on the "high frontier." Fast-forward to today, when he and a group of other space science experts, including a former astronaut, are taking off in a new direction. Together, they created the BoldlyGo Institute whose mission is to chart a new path for getting space science into space.

After "living and breathing the federal budget process" for seven budget cycles, it was clear to Morse where things were headed. At the exact moment when the U.S. could lead bold missions like robotic-boats sailing the methane lakes of Saturn's moon Titan, we were pulling back.

"Flat was the new up," Morse says of the NASA budget. "It was clear that we could expect space science budgets to be level for the balance of the decade and beyond."

All of those groundbreaking, epoch-making, kid-inspiring missions were ending up on the cutting room floor. All lost due to limited resources.

So the idea behind the non-profit BoldlyGo was simple — create dramatic new ways to fund, manage and execute space exploration. The advent of private space companies like SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic had already started what many are calling NewSpace — a new ecosystem of players involved in the human exploitation of Earth's orbital environment. And it's not just that these new companies own their own rockets. They've also changed how rockets are designed and built. They've brought an entirely different kind of management perspective to the entire process. NASA still plays a critical role but NewSpace has unleashed a reservoir of vital creative energy into thinking about human beings and the near Earth environment.

BoldyGo aims to tap that same energy for space exploration missions taking us far beyond Earth's orbit. To begin, BoldlyGo is focused on developing two very different classes of space science missions.

The first, called Sample Collection to Investigate Mars or SCIM, is focused on the solar system. As Morse describes it, "It's going to be the first robotic round trip to the Red Planet. SCIM's going to make a daring transit of the Martian atmosphere, collect a precious cargo of dust grains and then return to Earth."

You can see their plans, here:

By analyzing each individual dust particle — tearing them apart atom-by-atom — Morse says we'll finally be able to explore Martian surface materials with cutting-edge technologies found in terrestrial labs. That data will teach us about the geological history of Mars, including information about possible conditions for life and its evolution.

The second mission, called ASTRO-1, will be a large space-based telescope for looking at the universe in visible and ultraviolet light (NASA's successor for the Hubble, the JWST, will focus on longer wavelength infrared light). As Morse explains:

"This one is particularly exciting to me because it follows closely in the footsteps of the Hubble Space Telescope, enhancing its powerful legacy in some areas and reaching to make unique observations in others. It's going to address some really compelling questions like 'Are we alone in the universe?' by directly detecting exoplanets orbiting nearby stars using multiple techniques."

Both of these projects are bleeding-edge space science missions that any space agency would be happy to fund.

But they can't.

So the real question is: How does BoldyGo intend to get the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to make these projects into realities? That's where you and I and some aerospace companies and some very rich folks come in. As Morse says:

"I think it's important to note that all cutting-edge research in space astrophysics and planetary science is funded by the federal government (i.e., NASA). This is not true in other scientific fields such as medical research or even ground-based astronomy, where significant facilities that have large scientific impacts are supported outside of the federal realm. Moreover, there will always be more outstanding ideas than any plausible government budget can support."

So what BoldlyGo imagines is a mix of funding sources that include large grants from individuals or foundations, or even corporate sponsorships. Support from aerospace companies can come in a variety of forms including in-kind. Corning has already donated $1.8 million worth of mirror components for the ASTRO-1 project. And while crowd funding will play its role, Morse thinks the general public can also play even more important roles through citizen science projects that will come once data are taken.

Looking over the state of U.S. science funding these days, it's hard to not to get depressed. But the BoldlyGo Institute challenges us to remember that the stakes are too high to give up. When it comes to stepping more boldly through the doors that space science has already opened, we should keep that old NASA motto close to heart:

Failure is not an option.

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.
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