Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
JPL, home to three thousand engineers and five hundred scientists, is very old—2016 is its eightieth anniversary—but it's only in the last few years that the close of the space shuttle program has left enough of an excitement gap for the center's singular brilliance to shine through. In contrast to NASA's other outposts, where you'll find a lot of unflappable pilot types with high-and tight haircuts, JPL is full of strange, excitable, idea people. Climate scientists who work side gigs as comedians and engineers who shave star shapes into their Mohawks before landings. ... Just off California Interstate 210, there are two signs on the side of the road. The bottom one shows an outline of the California mule deer that tend to meander out of the sagebrush and into passing traffic. The top one just says "Space," with an arrow pointing forward. The second sign is not an official JPL sign. No one really knows where it came from. People around here presume it was put there as a joke and no one ever bothered to take it down. ... Even though JPL is currently beholden to its parent organization's budgets and approvals, it is actually the reason NASA exists. ... The best way to understand what JPL does is to consider the center's "directorates," which is space-agency-speak for departments. Among these are four organized by planet. Taken together, they sound like a particularly difficult round of Jeopardy: Earth Science, Astrophysics, Mars, and Planets That Are Not Mars.
Europa truly does represent a singular chance. Crossing 800 million kilometers with a sizable, robust payload will require vast sums of money—there won’t be a second chance. But Europa represents a gamble in another sense, too. No one knows whether NASA will discover a frozen, dead world far from the Sun or if the organization will make the most profound of discoveries just below the ice. ... During the last decade, NASA has recast its human and robotic space exploration programs around the search for life both in our Solar System and beyond. Much of this effort has focused on Mars, which is relatively close to Earth and may have harbored life in the past. Culberson has pushed the agency further to seek extant life. He and a lot of scientists believe the best place to find extraterrestrial life in the Solar System lies in deep oceans below Europa’s inhospitable surface. ... Notably, the JPL team thinks it has solved the vexing problem of planetary protection, the concern that any stray microbes from Earth could contaminate Europa’s ecosystem. The solution has come straight out of the pages of science fiction—the lander mission will be the first interplanetary spacecraft to carry a self-destruct mechanism.