Despite the concerns about the future of NASA’s planetary
science program, we are in a “golden age” of planetary
exploration, with Curiosity’s landing on Mars a prime
example. (credit: entroz at deviantART)

History’s rhymes

by Dwayne Day
Monday, December 17, 2012

“In the midst of events, there is no perspective.” — Barbara Tuchman

“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” — Mark Twain

“History is just one damned thing after another.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

Is history—human events—just never-ending repetition, or does it progress, with humanity learning and avoiding the mistakes of the past?

In late October NASA celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Mariner 2’s arrival at Mars with a history symposium held in Crystal City, a picturesque suburb of Washington located near National Airport. The symposium was recently covered by Jeff Foust (see “Planetary science turns to history to help guide its future”, The Space Review, November 19, 2012). Although Foust focused upon a few presentations, the presenters covered a wide range of planetary science history subjects. Two dozen speakers spoke about subjects such as the Voyager missions, asteroid impacts depicted in the movies and television, the creation of the Discovery program of relatively small spacecraft, Soviet planetary science achievements, the “faster cheaper better” program of the 1990s, the politics of planetary mission selection, and the origins of the Skycrane landing system for the Curiosity rover.

Despite the breadth of topics, the unintentional theme of the symposium became what past events can tell us about the current state of NASA’s planetary science program. This unfortunate theme was not really the result of talks about the early 1980s period when it looked like NASA planetary exploration was “going out of business,” or the late 1990s failure of two Mars missions and the reorganization of the Mars exploration program. Rather, it had more to do with the fact that there were question sessions after each presentation, and a few of the questioners repeatedly focused on the current budget issues facing NASA’s planetary science program, even if the topic of the presentation had little relevance to that subject. Thus, while the symposium covered a half century of stunning accomplishment, the atmosphere at times seemed as gloomy as the pre-Hurricane Sandy skies outside the conference room.

Read more: The Space Review: History’s rhymes: why the future of planetary science isn’t defined by its past.

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