America’s space scientists are entitled to a period of mourning after the Cassini spacecraft burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday.
After all, 20 years after its launch, the most expensive spacecraft ever sent to the outer planets has produced 3,948 science papers (and counting), 453,048 photographs (and counting), and a cohort of young scientists who earned their Ph.D.s and other training thanks to the mission.
Accomplishments like that don’t come cheap, and in today’s climate of tight budgets and more immediate needs, a proposal with a $3.26 billion price tag like Cassini’s almost certainly wouldn’t fly.
But the U.S. can’t afford to lose the long-term economic, diplomatic and prestige benefits that large-scale missions bring.
For NASA, that presents a complicated challenge: How does the agency ensure that we have more Cassinis — for less money?
For decades, NASA’s reputation has been defined by human exploration and what the agency calls its “large strategic missions” like Cassini, the Mars Curiosity rover and the Hubble space telescope.
Such missions generally require more than a decade to plan, and support and sustain large teams of space scientists and students for years.
As a rule, they cost more than $1 billion.
Sometimes far more.
These missions have become known for huge cost overruns that place them in political as well as technical trouble.
The most notable example is the James Webb space telescope, the yet-to-launch successor to Hubble.
Since it was proposed in the 1990s, the cost has grown from under $1 billion to $8.8 billion, while the launch date has…
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