With the GOP in charge of the Senate, Ted Cruz has taken charge of the Science, Space, and Competitiveness subcommittee. Which means Ted Cruz now oversees NASA. On Wednesday, Cruz issued a statement saying that “Our space program marks the frontier of future technologies for defense, communications, transportation and more, and our mindset should be focused on NASA’s primary mission: exploring space and developing the wealth of new technologies that stem from its exploration. . . . We must refocus our investment on the hard sciences, on getting men and women into space, on exploring low-Earth orbit and beyond . . . I am excited to raise these issues in our subcommittee and look forward to producing legislation that confirms our shared commitment to this vital mission.” It’s not surprising that Cruz has taken an interest in NASA — whatever you think of his policies, there’s no question that he has a powerful intellect. And as a bonus, NASA’s Houston establishment is in the Texan senator’s constituency. So Cruz can be counted on to take this seriously.
Cruz is right when he calls for focus on manned space flight; a return to launching our own astronauts into space should be at the top of the agenda, and a return to Apollo-style deep-space exploration should be just below it. We’ve already got the unmanned side of things pretty well covered: NASA has ongoing unmanned missions to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto. The European Space Agency is handling Venus. I’d like to make a plea for the forgotten planets — the Ice Giants.
There are no ongoing or planned missions to Uranus or Neptune. And believe me, there should be. Earth chauvinism makes us forget, sometimes, that we aren’t the only blue planet. But out beyond Saturn are two of the most charming, gigantic, gaseous blue spheres in the solar system.
Poorly christened Uranus is the only planet with a Greek, rather than a Roman, name. Before that, it — improbably — had a Jewish name. It was the first planet to be truly discovered, as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all easily visible in the night sky. The (part-Jewish) British astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus in March of 1781, and named it the Georgian Planet, for George III. The French weren’t interested in a planet named for a British monarch, and called it Herschel instead. Shtetls were evoked. Which, in hindsight, might not have been a bad thing. The name Uranus was suggested by one of Herschel’s colleagues, as the father of Cronus (Saturn), who was the father of Zeus (Jupiter). Incidentally, if they had followed the convention of Roman names, our seventh planet would have been named Caelus. More hindsight.
Uranus is the only planet that rotates (roughly) in the plane of the solar system; that is, its axis of rotation is (roughly) at a right angle to Earth’s: Uranus rotates on its side. Since a Uranian year — one Uranus-trip around the sun — is 84 Earth-years long, each pole spends 42 (Earth) years in daylight followed by 42 years in darkness. Consequently, the planet has substantial seasonal variation, heat gradients, and weather: bands of cloud, cyclones, and thunderstorms so extreme that astronomers at Hawaii’s Keck telescope have compared the planet’s lightning light-shows to “Fourth of July fireworks.” Our only close-up photographs of Uranus show it as a blank, cerulean-blue canvas. Totally featureless. Our close-up photos come from Voyager 2’s brief flyby, and, unfortunately, we caught it on a dull day. Nothing manmade has ever orbited Uranus.
Like Saturn, Uranus has a complex ring system. Like Saturn and Jupiter, it has an extensive network of moons: 27 discovered so far. Five of them are, like Earth’s moon, big enough to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium and become spherical. Little worlds in their own right. Unfortunately, we snapped just a few pictures of them as Voyager zoomed past. We haven’t seen their entire surfaces. We do know at least one has peculiar, chaotic geology that makes it look like a mosaic of moon-bits smashed together. And we know that, big as they are, they’re too small to be examined from Earth.
By the way, inside the carbon-rich pressure-cooker that is Uranus — if you’re interested in this sort of thing — it rains diamonds, into oceans of liquid diamond, upon which float “diamond-bergs.” It also does that on Neptune.
Neptune — our gorgeous, cobalt blue final planet — was discovered in one of history’s most remarkable applications of mathematical analysis. After Herschel discovered Uranus, a French astronomer named Alexis Bouvard calculated the orbit it would follow. Observation proved that calculation incorrect, prompting Bouvard to speculate that there might be some even more distant planet pulling Uranus off course. Mathematician Urbain Le Verrier calculated where that planet should be; German astronomer Johann Galle looked where Le Verrier pointed, and lo and behold, there was Neptune.
And with Neptune, you get two planets in one: The largest of Neptune’s moons, Triton, is one of the largest moons in the solar system. It’s larger than Pluto, and — because it’s the only major moon to orbit in the wrong direction, retrograde to its planet’s rotation — it’s thought that before it was a moon, it was a planet, and that Neptune’s gravity captured it. We know Triton is geologically active, that it has an atmosphere, and that its western hemisphere has a peculiar surface texture that makes it look like a gigantic, cosmic cantaloupe. We don’t know why, and we don’t know much else: We have photographs of only about a third of its surface. Triton is a mystery.
Mystery is a theme of our two big, blue planets. And NASA is finally re-assembling a rocket powerful enough to make exploration of Uranus and Neptune possible on a sub-decade timescale. Science and space are passions of the United States; Republicans, and Democrats, and everyone else should get behind Cruz. And Cruz should get behind planetary science. A big increase in NASA’s budget would be the tiniest of drops in the budget as a whole, and it would have broad, national support.
And for the cynical among you: It would help the Republican Congress set a precedent for funding individual departments individually, instead of having to send the president a porcine omnibus bill. How could this president not sign off on new funding for NASA? And individual funding bills would save a damn sight more money than we’ll ever spend on space.
Write your congressman.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.