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“NASA, the Search for Life, and Missions to Europa” by
Quest Volume: 28 #4 (2021)
In late 2024, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may launch Europa Clipper, a spacecraft designed to explore one of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. The agency first began planning a Europa mission nearly three decades earlier, in 1996. The idea subsequently underwent a difficult evolution, including three outright cancellations. That the exploration of Europa survived at all has to be attributed to its primary objective: determining whether the moon, which apparently hides a deep ocean under its irradiated, icy crust, might be “habitable”—capable of supporting extraterrestrial life.
A long and circuitous origin is not unusual for US and European space science missions costing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Political and scientific consensus building is difficult, requiring the construction of coalitions in the scientific community and in the governments and legislatures involved, coalitions that need to be sustained and renewed, often for two or more decades. To succeed, a mission team must align science goals, science community enthusiasm, engineering development, and agency goals and programs, while navigating budgetary restrictions, changing technologies, and shifting political priorities.
The origins and evolution of NASA Europa projects is thus a useful case study of American space science policy and mission formulation and how they are shaped by both science and politics. What makes this study particularly valuable to historians of science and space policy analysts is that it is primarily a 21st century story. It provides new insight on how the environment changed for NASA and the US space sciences since the year 2000, an era so recent it has been little studied by historians or political scientists.
Neufeld, Michael. “NASA, the Search for Life, and Missions to Europa.” Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2021): 9-32.