Oceans of Opportunity

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NASA’s Ocean Worlds Exploration Program

'A New Life in the Sea' by Michael LombardiNews of a recent NASA proposed budget to the House Appropriations Committee crossed my desk just this week, and while the vision is exciting, I’m somewhat disturbed.

The punchline of the proposed Ocean Worlds Exploration Program includes ambitious life-seeking missions to the watery worlds of Europa, Enceladus, and Titan, with program development tipping well over the $100 MM mark. I, perhaps more than anyone, am excited about the pursuit of discovering new extraterrestrial life in our universe, but I have been choking on these massive NASA investments when we are in the wake of virtually eliminating US funded ocean exploration programs.

There are two trains of thought…

First, one might argue that high end NASA style exploration and the innovation required to get us there will trickle down to enhance ocean exploration and other areas. This is a tried and true investment strategy, and certainly has its merits. For instance, much of the remote sensing technology used in ocean mapping has intimate ties to comparable mapping strategies of other planet’s surfaces. Then of course there are the innovations that we all relate to on a daily basis, like velcro. All important, all valuable, and all fit the bigger picture.

Another train of thought that I believe warrants some considerations is a bottom-up approach. Here’s a thought – invest $100 MM into ocean exploration with the intent of a) developing a suite of vehicles, instruments, tools, and so on that provide for opportunities to scale up human exploration and data acquisition within new ocean frontiers; and b) targeting methods that provide analogues for future manned extended range space exploration. Some might say we’ve been there and done that and it only works to a limited scale (60’s-70’s era of life in the sea programs), however our needs are different today.

Fiscally, this level of investment into ocean exploration would be unprecedented, and if implemented with sounds business strategy would quite likely result in a sustained enterprise – new medicines, new fisheries, new sources of recreation and entertainment, and a renewed focus on technology that could truly take us somewhere ‘out of this world’. The resulting science would be high impact, loaded with fresh new discoveries, and we might even ignite enough public interest to recognize that the value placed on our oceans directly correlates with the value we consider of ourselves. All makes logical sense.

Given space exploration’s movement for a manned mission to Mars, certainly the argument has been made that our survival may require a quantum leap away from Earth – a sort of panspermia that may likely have planted the seeds of life right here at the beginning. perhaps we don’t have to look that far away. Perhaps what we need is a new found synergy with our blue planet. There’s plenty of real estate out there for the taking.

Where NASA is going right, and we [the ocean community] is seemingly going wrong, is that they have a voice that is being heard in Congress. There’s been plenty of gripes and groans about how the US only funds  ocean programs at a fraction of a percent of NASA’s total budget, but where is the action and any concerted effort to change that? Therein lies the problem – we need to be heard, but first, we need a voice.

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