It's an enduring image of the American space age: a roomful of jubilant nerds, cheering wildly at some far-distant accomplishment, while the NASA emblem in the background confers a sense of civic triumph.
That scene repeated itself this week as NASA's Juno spacecraft slid into orbit around Jupiter, five years and 1.7 billion miles after setting out. The mission already looks like a scientific triumph. It's also emblematic of the future of spacefaring.
The Juno team celebrates at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after receiving data indicating that NASA’s Juno mission entered orbit around Jupiter. Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL, is seen at the center hugging JPL's acting director for solar system exploration, Richard Cook. --NASA
Once online, Juno will investigate some of Jupiter's most persistent mysteries, such as what its core is made of, how many moons it has and how much water it contains. In doing so, the probe will have to overcome plenty of challenges, including intense radiation, some worrisome wobbling and a time lag with mission control of nearly an hour. Scott Bolton, the mission's chief, was only slightly exaggerating when he called it "the hardest thing NASA has ever done" -- as much an intellectual achievement as a physical one.
NASA has been doing a lot of hard stuff lately. Its New Horizons spacecraft made some stunning flybys of Pluto last year. Its Dawn orbiter is studying the dwarf planet Ceres, with its mysterious bright spots. The Curiosity rover is making its leisurely way across the Martian surface. Perhaps most electrifying, the Kepler space telescope is detecting new planets beyond the solar system, some of which may well support life.
One thing all these exploratory feats have in common is that the only humans involved are very much earthbound. The manned space program isn't over (a trip to Mars, for one thing, is still in the cards). But its accomplishments will be fewer and farther between. Budgetary reality, technological constraints, and the grim toll -- physical and psychological -- that spacefaring exacts on people all suggest that there's a hard limit to what might be accomplished anytime soon.
And that's just fine. As with much else in our near future, space exploration will increasingly involve humans and robots working in tandem, with scientists providing the brainwork and machines doing the dangerous stuff. The scientific dividends of such missions will be substantial. The costs will be relatively modest. And many of the most sensational missions -- public and private alike -- will involve distances that people could never travel, even if they wanted to.
Although not as romantic as the Apollo missions, and surely less suitable for Hollywood, such exploration is nonetheless thrilling. And as an exemplar of information-age achievement -- combining imagination and hard science, human creativity and robotic brawn -- it's hard to beat.
The nerds in mission control may not be as intrepid as the astronauts who sailed the moon. But their contribution to the grand American space experiment will prove every bit as consequential.