I became aware of Cassini’s Pixaresque story four months ago when a writer at my publication was covering news of the space probe’s first of many dives through Saturn’s rings. It came to me, anthropomorphized as it was, positioned as mankind’s tiny cosmic voyager traveling all alone out there on the edge of space for the benefit of science. Cassini seemed so brave, I felt compelled to become acquainted with it, though I arrived in its life just near the end; my relationship with the space probe was framed by the news of its approaching death. Cassini for me will only ever be a finite, ungrounded concept — an idea in my head with which I am cannot truly interact, divorced from the object itself. It intrigues me because it and its mission are all heady ideas and emotions, nothing physical with which to tether them.
Stranger yet, what Cassini sends back — and this (and most of these observations) is true of nearly every other space probe — is only more bizarre. Scientific observations of titanic planets so completely unlike our Earth, and so volatile and unforgiving, that they have almost zero bearing on my own life. It’s a metal box floating around in space pinging photos of Saturn’s rings to me with a camera built in 1997. The year it launched, our current President was giving interviews to Playboy. Space probes tell us a lot about the nature of reality, but they can’t always tell us much about the nature of our reality.
Probes like Cassini seem like they would be something of a hard sell to the US Government. Cassini as a concept emerged during the cold war 1980s and was used partially to curry favorability with a cooling Europe against the influence of Russia, but it entered budgetary concerns during the Clinton era of the 1990s, when politics were growing more partisan and vicious. The probe almost suffered from budget cuts in ’92 and again in ’94, the same year Republicans took both the house and the senate. The entire project cost $3.26 billion, with 80% of its budget ($2.6bn) coming out of American pockets.
To put that into perspective, Cassini’s entire budget is an almost 1/6th of the $19.1 billion dollar budget Trump has sought, which is less than a half a percent of the annual budget, paltry compared to its space race heyday. And while Trump’s cuts were kind to the space program, and it’s still a relatively popular institution among Americans across the ideological spectrum, space exploration is now increasingly being led in the private sector by billionaires like Elon Musk and his ambitious SpaceX program. Trump’s budget actually allocates more funding ($1.9 billion) to planetary missions like Cassini than Obama’s budget did, although circumstances are contextually different.
If many coastal Americans live in a country we do not know, why is the president of alienated, unsung factory workers from the middle so partial to spending on space exploration? It seems like a first pick to jettison in the march toward balancing the budget and getting Americans ‘back to work.’ It’s not that simple. Americans on the whole have a positive opinion of space research and exploration, but the rate of the positivity correlates to education levels and partisan identity — meaning they’re more likely to be supportive of space research if they have a college degree and/or they identify as a democrat, insinuating that NASA could very easily become one of the many American institutions to suffer from the polarization that has claimed science.
And a positive attitude does not mean more funding — on the contrary, less than a quarter of Americans think that NASA’s budget is too little. A good number of Americans believe we will land on Mars, but they aren’t willing to pay for it. Match that with Trump’s defense budget which, at $639 billion (almost 34 times NASA’s budget), is considered by Republicans to be short of their desired figure. Americans are, however, somewhat unsure about sending humans into space, which favors probes like Cassini, although even unmanned trips to nearby Mars are growing more difficult to fund.