In an age of austerity, can the United States still afford, in "Star Trek's" memorable phrase, "to boldly go where no man has gone before"?
The answer: maybe. The space shuttle program — that long-running, always slightly disappointing successor to the thrilling Apollo moon missions — is no more. The Obama administration has made it plain that the future of human spaceflight, at least in the near term, will consist of federal partnerships with private enterprise. Entrepreneurs (that is, those whose bottom line is not to advance scientific discovery but to make a buck) as opposed to taxpayers will be footing most of the bills and, we can expect as a result, calling most of the shots.
That, perhaps, is how it needs to be at a time when the rival political parties are squabbling not over whose programs are more ambitious in reaching new heights of achievement but, rather, over whose proposals will trim more trillions from government spending over the next decade.
But as Friday's launch of the Jupiter probe dubbed Juno demonstrates, this doesn't mean that we need to retreat from exploring the cosmos. The $1.1 billion craft will reach the solar system's largest and oldest planet in July 2016 and will seek clues to the gas giant's origins and composition. Juno may also reveal whether Jupiter contains any traces of the Holy Grail of planetary exploration: water.
Closer to home, at least relatively speaking, water has also lately been on the minds of astronomers studying images sent by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Dark streaks in the planet's southern hemisphere that appear and disappear as the weather changes give the strongest evidence yet that the substance so crucial to supporting life may indeed be present on the Red Planet.
Of course, even if Mars is proved to have water — and Thursday's announcement is a far cry from that — it does not necessarily follow that life exists (or existed) on our second-closest planetary neighbor.
But the coincidence of last week's announcement, coming just a day before the launch of the probe whose mission will include the search for water and oxygen on Jupiter, reminds us why this stuff is important. Despite tough economic times, the United States simply cannot give up on space exploration. It would be a tremendous failure of will and imagination to retreat from this noble pursuit, one that has fascinated humanity since its earliest days.
It's true that in a nation in which tax cuts for the rich take precedence over even such essentials as maintaining quality education and a healthy system of roads and bridges, it may not be possible to accomplish great things in space, as we once did. But someday, we are convinced, America will be able to again send men and women — not just robots — deep into space to discover its secrets. That is hard to imagine at the moment, but times change, and someday the national mood will again be one in which the value of investment is appreciated — investment in things like health care and housing, to be sure, but also investment in our dreams.