At 3:31 A.M. (PDT), Friday, September 15, 2017, a 3,420-pound mechanical device ceased to exist. At that moment it became swallowed up by the fiery interior of the gaseous planet Saturn, nearly a billion miles from Earth. Why this event should be of concern to anyone is a matter which deserves to be told.
The device created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory over 20 years ago, and named Cassini, began its voyage into space aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle on October 15, 1997. The project, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), was to send a probe to study the planet Saturn and its system, including its moons and rings. The $3.9 billion cost of the operation is a legacy of the go-big mentality of the early days of space exploration, where few restraints existed to minimize the scope of such explorations.
The result of this voyage produced nearly a half million pictures of moons and rings for observation by the many teams of scientists assigned to scrutinize the data. The final report is summed up by NASA’s program scientist Curt Niebur: “The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it’s coming to an end. I find great comfort in the fact Cassini will continue teaching us up to the very last second.”
This brings us to a fundamental question. What’s the purpose of this pursuit into the cosmos? In an earlier time, during the Cold War, with world supremacy on the line, the space race could be rationalized. The U.S. and the USSR aggressively competed in technological one-upmanship, and the expertise we might develop could be a factor in guaranteeing our national survival. Here in the 21st Century this is no longer the case. Except for providing grants for selected beneficiaries and salaries for a lot of chosen people, it’s difficult to describe exactly what NASA’s 2017 budget of $19.0 billion actually does for the average American.
Nonetheless the quest goes on and there’s no bit of trivia too insignificant not to be cited as a basis for continuing, for as with any government program, perpetuation is the primary aim. It’s projects like this which bolster the continuity of NASA’s involvement in an endless succession of studies and explorations that never end.