Where have all of the spaceships gone?

Jared Rogers-Martin

After nine long, lonely years, the New Horizons spacecraft will flutter its camera eyes open next week and beam pictures of the dwarf planet Pluto back to Earth.
 
While these pictures will be stellar, even better ones will continue to appear. But casual space enthusiasts will furrow their brows when they learn the answer to the question of when the pictures will arrive. 
 
The answer: They might not. After the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14, the New Horizons mission will silently continue into the dark of the Kuiper Belt, a field of small, icy planetoids that entombs the interior of the solar system. Mission accomplished.
 
Normally, I’d be ecstatic at the prospect of a “mission accomplished,” but right now I feel antsy because the New Horizons mission isn’t the only NASA spacecraft that will slip into the darkness in the next few years.
 
Cassini-Huygens — the impressive hunk of machinery that landed a probe on Saturn’s moon Titan and continues to whirl around the ringed gas giant while snapping pictures — will have spent almost 15 years near the planet before it reaches the end of its second extended mission in 2017. 
 
The seemingly invincible Opportunity rover on Mars was only supposed to be a 90-day mission, but NASA built the little guy so well that it recently finished roving the length of a full marathon on Mars with a record time of approximately 11 years. However, the budget for this little runner is expected to drop to nil in the next few
years. Mission accomplished.
 
The Mars Odyssey and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will soon join the European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission by turning off their computers or crashing into the planets they orbit within the next few years.
 
With all these claims of “mission accomplished,” humanity’s “place in space” suddenly seems woefully diminished. NASA does plan to send an updated Mars rover to the red planet in 2020, and Congress allocated money to start planning a trip to Saturn’s moon Europa (which wouldn’t arrive until after 2030), but the rate at which we’re terminating missions far outnumbers the rate at which we’re sending them to space. 
 
Keep in mind that space is big. It took about nine years of travel time alone for New Horizons to reach Pluto. Closer destinations like Jupiter and Saturn still require several years of spaceflight. In contrast, the time to get to Mars is measured in months, rather than years. When you add up the time it takes to plan, allocate a budget, build, launch and then travel to a new part of our solar system, a decade could fly by. 
 
In a decade, many of us studying at the University of Minnesota right now will be married and have kids who could ask, “Daddy, where did all the spaceships go?”
 
Dreams of landing humans on Mars or living on the International Space Station (which closes in 2020) will start by sending out a constant flow of new missions to work out the kinks in new technologies and stretch the galactic reach of humankind.
 
Keeping pressure on Congress and NASA to continue to explore space shouldn’t start when we realize there aren’t any more missions. It needs to start now.