Commentary: The Dawn of understanding
Why does space travel matter? Well, the answer to that question very much depends on whom you ask. Visionaries like Steven Hawking would say a driving force is the need to become a multi-planetary species to ensure the survival of the human race. Popular scientists like Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson would paint a portrait, waxing on the poetic, of the tapestry of human exploration. Earth scientists would point to the influence space travel has had on our understanding, both philosophical and scientific, of our own planet.
Engineers would say it is the ultimate challenge to design objects for the harshest environments in the galaxy. Every group has a different answer, and one of the hardest things for the space community to truly appreciate is that none of these answers has any political significance. Just as astrophysicists and astrobiologists see the value in space exploration, but often for different reasons, so too do politicians. An inability to speak their language is one of the critical reasons that NASA is treated like a piñata by congressional budget hawks.
So if you asked the White House or Congress why space travel matters, what might they say? They might point to its benefits for education, its investment in research and development, its critical function as an employer, and its role in international cooperation. That’s the language of Washington, irrespective of the truth in everyone else’s answers.
Now seems like as good a time as any to reinforce that message as NASA’s Dawn makes its way towards the dwarf planet Ceres after 14 months orbiting Vesta. Together these two bodies are the largest dwarf planets in the asteroid belt swirling between Mars and Jupiter, and in transiting between the two Dawn will become the first satellite to circle two non-terrestrial objects. And it did so while building bridges right here on Earth.
Dawn is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California under the Discovery Program, which is headed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. While the University of California Los Angeles is responsible for the mission overall, JPL is run by the California Institute of Technology. The satellite being used was designed by a northern Virginia-based company, where it was built as well. The German space agency, a German research institute, the Italian space agency, and an Italian research institute were also included on the mission.
So let’s recap. As an engineer you would no doubt be most interested in the technical challenges of orbiting two celestial bodies. As a planetary scientist or geologist you would likely find the data gathered by the spacecraft as the most important part of the mission. But if you want to convince Washington that Dawn is a success, none of that matters. What they want to hear is that NASA spearheaded a multilateral effort to include two leading American research universities, a major American company, two foreign research centers, multiple congressional districts in key electoral states, and two international partners.
Speaking politics doesn’t devalue Dawn. Speaking politics does, however, help ensure Dawn is not the last mission of its kind. As much as the space community may like to ignore Washington, we have to recognize that American taxpayers fund our passion, and it is our responsibility to honestly explain why space travel matters for them. Let Dawn be an example for how simple it is to make asteroids and faraway places matter right here on Earth.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SpaceFlight Insider.
Since 2011 Joshua Tallis has served as the manager for research and analysis at an intelligence and security services provider in Washington, DC. Josh has co-authored several articles in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International with colleagues from the defense community. Previous work experience includes internships at the U.S. Congress and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Josh is also a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews' Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and Special Honors graduate of The George Washington University where he received a BA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs.