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A Coronavirus-Size Pause Button on Space Exploration

When I asked NASA leadership whether they had changed their approach to asking for Artemis funding in the midst of the pandemic, I was prepared for the agency’s usual, dreamy remarks about the importance of exploring the great unknown. The answer, while indirect, was more down-to-earth, in keeping with the tone of the times: “NASA space exploration has been an economic driver for the U.S. economy, creating tens of thousands of jobs, reducing our trade deficit, and inspiring countless Americans to pursue careers in STEM fields,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said in a statement. “Artemis will continue that long tradition, growing our economy and improving life on Earth for generations to come.”

It might be tempting, for the science-fiction-minded, to think that global emergencies like this pandemic are proof that space exploration is more worthwhile than ever, because it’s our ticket out of here. But moving a large chunk of humanity off Earth, even if it could be done, would hardly be a panacea. Preparing a passenger ship to Mars under threat of infection would be difficult, and so would preventing the virus from hitching a ride. The International Space Station remains in operation, with three people currently on board—and three more expected to launch in April—but the station is a laboratory, not a disaster bunker.

“It’s just incredibly humbling,” Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, told me recently. “Because we think we’re so great, right? We can launch all these spacecraft. We’re just so powerful. And now we’re just basically knocked into a standstill.”

Seager works on a NASA mission to detect distant planets outside our solar system, which means she spends her days thinking about worlds beyond Earth. She’s still thinking about exoplanets right now—after all, she still has to work—but like many of us, she is glued to the news, trying to stay healthy, and navigating the strange new norms of everyday life; Massachusetts, where she lives, issued a stay-at-home advisory last week. If some big exoplanet news came out tomorrow, Seager—whom The New York Times once referred to as “The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth”—probably wouldn’t pay attention to it. “I don’t think people have the bandwidth to get excited about new discoveries right now,” she said.

Space exploration unfolds over the course of years, even decades; it involves a particular kind of thinking about the future and requires us to imagine separate realities with all the vividness with which we experience our own. It seems almost ridiculous to ask people to consider the cosmic right now, when the “great unknown” can just as easily apply to the next couple of weeks.

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