Thursday, March 28, 2013

Discoveries Pave the Way for Progress

Discovery should never be hindered; discovery allows children to learn about the world around them, discovery breaks through barriers to knowledge and understanding, and discovery imparts a numinous consideration of the cosmos upon us slightly-evolved, somewhat-intelligent human-apes.  Discovery paves the way for progress, and without discovery such progress is hindered.

I love that the relatively low-cost space missions run through NASA's Planetary Science Division are called Discovery Missions.  These missions usually have one scientist as a PI as well as a large project team and are capped by NASA at costing at most $425 million.  Discovery Missions have included NEAR, Mars Pathfinder, Lunar Prospector, Stardust, Genesis, CONTOUR (the only one that was not successful), MESSENGER, Deep Impact, Dawn, Kepler, GRAIL, and the recently announced InSight.  The missions were initially intended for one new mission to be launched every 24 months, but due to the lack of funding for NASA from the American public, the missions were reduced to launching every 50 months.

I call these Discovery Missions "relatively low-cost" since they cost less than New Frontiers Missions (up to $1 billion and launching every 7 years) and the Flagship Missions (over $1.5 billion and launching just once every decade).  Obviously $425 million might not seem very "low-cost", but compared to other large-scale science missions it's not too bad (and compared to the cost of just about any military operations it's ridiculously cheap).  It's too bad that we're not funding more Discovery Missions.  These missions have the potential to yield great jumps in our knowledge of space and science.

The recent years of space exploration and the rise of commercial space operations makes me wonder if it may become cheaper and more cost-effective in the near future to operate Discovery Missions.  If we can entrust launches to the lowest, reliable bidder (as opposed to the highest bidders as we seem to have in the past) and we can start building missions with some "off the shelf" components instead of creating everything from scratch, it seems like the utilization of Discovery Missions may allow for great advances in further exploration.  Of course, the larger missions are pretty awesome and I'd love to see more of those as well, but they are truly more expensive in time and resources.  I would love to see us get to the point when we could launch two or three Discovery Missions every 18 to 24 months.  I think taking many such small jumps in discovery of the cosmos beyond our Earth could do much to further public support for space exploration.  Imagine if Discovery Missions were each developed with outreach in mind such that each mission carried along the signatures of children, were monitored by elementary schools, were fully invested in social networking, and maybe even sought to include high-school students as interns to aid in development and mission operations.  The large-scale missions give huge leaps and bounds in discovery, but it's the small Discovery Missions that continue to pave the way for the progress of the large missions.

For more info on Discovery Missions, check out the website from NASA:

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