Saturn's Deep, Dark Secret
Titan, the only major body in the solar system that we haven't gotten a good look at, is about to be outed.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
(Page 4 of 4)
Space exploration has always been an odd blend of millennial vision and civil-service bureaucracy, and Cassini-Huygens has seen extremes of both during its quarter-century gestation. The visionaries who got it started were inspired, in their various countries, by Voyager, which opened the outer solar system in the early 1980s and convinced space aficionados that unmanned missions could be as much of a rush as Apollo. “I remember investigators fighting for a seat at the terminals at JPL so they could look at Voyager images on closed circuit,” recalls the University of Arizona’s Jonathan Lunine. Titan, obviously reachable yet still unseen, struck this throng of scientific imaginations as a natural focus followup.
The idea of Europe going to Saturn, David Southwood recalls, was at the time “seen as laughable” to anyone outside the visionary circle and many within. ESA had been formed only seven years before—in 1973, when John Glenn was already a U.S. senator and Yuri Gagarin was long dead—and its mission, beyond building a rocket with a French name, was unclear. Then Daniel Gautier found a resourceful ally in Wing Ip, an astronomer who lobbied for a Titan probe while at Germany’s Max Planck Institute in the early 1980s and now works at Taiwan’s National Central University. When in 1982 ESA put out an all-points-bulletin for mission proposals, Ip set to work on a Titan plan. “ESA was very flexible just then,” Ip notes. “It was a chance that didn’t happen often and might not happen again.”
Not that Ip—who was born in Macau, earned his doctorate at the University of California at San Diego, and then followed his thesis adviser to Max Planck—immediately found common language with Gautier, a Parisian who in the Voyager period was working at NASA’s Goddard center. “Daniel, being French, thought he owned Titan and no one should interfere with his plans,” Ip remembers. “But eventually he agreed to talk to me.”
Upstart ESA was raising the level of its game elsewhere too. In 1985, it showed up NASA by sending the Giotto probe to Halley’s Comet, cooperating with the Soviets and Japanese, who also sent spacecraft. The United States alone sat out the mission to Halley.
Besides the independent streak in U.S. space policy, NASA’s bureaucratic customs differ from those of ESA, most markedly in budgetary practices. The 15 nations that kick in funds to Europe’s space agency make up their collective mind slowly. The Huygens team worked for five years before its first presentation to the ESA board, and final project approval came only in 1988. But once a project is okayed, funding is locked in until the mission is finished, and that rigidity proved a lifesaver for Cassini-Huygens during decades of shifts in the U.S. Congress’ moods. ESA’s firm resolution stayed Congress’ hand in 1993-’94, when budget hawks had Cassini in their sights, Toby Owen recalls. “When we were hanging by a thread, the director general of ESA wrote to Newt Gingrich telling him Europe wouldn’t support the International Space Station if the U.S. didn’t back Cassini,” Owen relates. “Without ESA, we wouldn’t be here.”
“Here,” for the little disk of hope and dreams called Huygens, is two billion miles away and approaching Saturn, its computers to be awakened for one final diagnostic before Christmas, when it cuts its Cassini umbilical cord and hurtles into black space. For space veterans like Toby Owen and Daniel Gautier, “here” tends to be a restless orbit around the globe, anywhere there are ideas to be shared and plans to be laid for the next grand scheme—a lander for Jovian moons Europa and Ganymede, a Titan orbiter accompanied by balloons that could float and photograph just above the surface. Requests for interviews for this story found Huygens scientists perpetually somewhere else—the Arizonans in Grenoble or London, the Parisians at Goddard and JPL.
For Lebreton and the cadre of scientists who have coddled Cassini-Huygens through the years, “here” means approaching one of the watersheds of their lives, and some disquiet can be expected. François Raulin, a University of Paris professor who is Huygens’ senior chemist, speaks for the group when he is asked what happens if the mission flops. “I don’t want to think about that,” he answers flatly. What they can do from here on to avoid spectacular (if noble) failure or assure spectacular success is exactly nothing.
Charting the trajectory of a path-breaking space mission like Cassini-Huygens reveals a vivid paradox: Those who push the edges of mankind’s envelope must live by old-fashioned—certainly pre-Baby Boomer—principles of patience and dedication, soldiering on for decades in the face of technical and political obstacles, and living always with the significant chance that it won’t work—that all you will have for the best years of your life is a good, honorable try. Offsetting this insecurity, space scientists live with an old-fashioned faith: that they are part of a great venture whose ultimate success is inevitable, whether now or a generation hence.