Cassini, the elaborate NASA space probe that dipped into the coral-orange atmosphere of the giant Saturnian moon Titan last week, is an advertisement for cooperative science. It's unlikely that Cassini's explorations will be able to live up to the hopes of cosmos buffs who have long postulated that Titan, because of its thick atmosphere, is the most likely body in the solar system to harbor life outside Earth. At minus 290 degrees, Titan is much too cold to support any kind of organism we know.
Space biologists, however, have been drawn to Titan precisely because it's so cold. Titan's nitrogen-dominated atmosphere closely resembles that of early Earth. It's thought to be a sort of snapshot of what happened before heat and light turned similar chemicals on Earth into life.
Whatever it discovers, Cassini is valuable not only as science but as a symbol of where the nation's often aimless space agency should be headed.
The successful flights earlier this year of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, are a harbinger of the need for NASA to cede its most mundane tasks -- carting payloads into space -- to commercial enterprise. Meanwhile, today's record federal deficits make NASA's most grandiose schemes, such as the manned missions to the moon and Mars that President Bush has proposed, highly improbable. Last month, the House of Representatives rightly put those scientifically dubious schemes on hold, eliminating the $105 million in seed money the president had proposed for them.
The Cassini project is not too big and not too small: the kind of ambitious, interdisciplinary and international mission the space agency does best. It shows that NASA can still widen the reach of human exploration without breaking the bank.
-- Los Angeles Times
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