Almost all of the information in The Nine Planets was gathered by NASA spacecraft and scientists and paid for by taxes. Our exploration of the solar system is necessarily a public enterprise and it lives or dies by public opinion.
But today the space program in the United States is in trouble. A series of tragic failures (Challenger, Mars Observer) and embarrassing setbacks (Galileo's stuck antenna, HST's flawed optics) have changed NASA's reputation from one of daring and can-do pragmatism to one of bumbling in-fighting bureaucracy. Popular support has largely evaporated. Its budget has been repeatedly slashed. Each year NASA struggles to make do with less and less. Many good proposals have been shelved and once in a lifetime opportunities missed.
It doesn't have to be this way. Remember Apollo? If you want to see America's space program restored to its former glory, you can help. Write your representatives in Washington. Jaw-bone your friends and colleagues. Join an activist group. Don't let policy be set by the opinions of those who think that the space program is only for Trekkies and that cutting NASA's budget alone can wipe out the deficit. Let your voice be heard.
There was recently a letter writing campaign to save Mars Surveyor. Apparently, one Congressman's office received a total of 10 (ten) letters of support which was considered "a lot" and was a significant factor in that Congressman's decision. So despite the conventional wisdom, at least on relatively limited issues like this, your voice can indeed be heard.
Some feel that the Space Station and the manned program in general is taking scarce dollars away from space science and argue for cuts in the manned program in hopes of grabbing some of the residual funds. But, in my opinion, this is a short-sighted attitude. An anonymous Usenet poster got it about right when he wrote:
"There are those who have different points of view about what our goals should be in space. Some are interested in science or just the beauty of an alien landscape; they are satisfied looking vicariously through the eyes of a machine; others feel the need to actually walk those alien landscapes, or send human proxies. Still others believe that human destiny is in the stars and we must expand into the universe to survive. I guess we need to work together, and tolerate each other's motivations."
Benjamin Franklin put it more succinctly: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
If you're a citizen of another nation, I apologize for the USA bias in all this. (In fact, I'm considerably embarrassed by the way my country has sometimes let down its partners in space.) If your country has its own space program (see below) please support it and programs of international cooperation like Cassini/Huygens.
An easy way to help is to join a space advocacy group like the following. They deserve the support of all who care about mankind's future in space.
The Planetary Society 65 North Catalina Avenue Pasadena, CA 91116
National Space Society 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE Suite 201 Washington, DC 20003
Astronomical Society of the Pacific 390 Ashton Avenue San Francisco, CA 94112 USA