The NASA Psyche Project: A Story from The Intermission

Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Right now, it seems that all our narratives are narratives of guilt and fear. Climate change. The pandemic. Pollution. Poverty. Division.

But space…space is a narrative of hope and aspiration. We look up into the dark at night and see stars and planets. We look through telescopes and see galaxies and nebulas. Of course we want to go there. That’s the number one question the public asks of NASA exploration team: What would it be like to be there? Though we have been invited to wonder this through the Apollo space program, and the Space Shuttles, and the International Space Station, and every Hollywood space-themed film and television show, in fact people have always wanted to go out into space. For millennia people have imagined rising up off our Earth and looking back at it. Long before there was even the idea of the technology that might let us do it, people have imagined space travel.

Over 600 years ago, in the 1380s Geoffrey Chaucer concluded his narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde with the death of its hero, the Trojan warrior Troilus.  As Troilus’ soul rises through the Earth’s atmosphere, “leaving every element” behind, he sees the wandering stars, and hears a planetary song, and he turns back to look towards the receding Earth.  He thinks about the surprising smallness of his former home, a dwindling expanse of land and water. He realizes the minute scale of his own life. Everything that seemed important, filled with passion, so grand, diminishes into a spot of earth and sea. Troilus laughs.

Troilus experienced the gift of perspective that only space exploration can give: The realization that we live, every one of us who has ever lived, on this one small planet. We are tiny and the universe is vast.

But Chaucer himself was a fan of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, written over 2,000 years ago, in 185 BCE, as the last part of his book On the Republic. Scipio, a Roman general, dreams that he is lifted into space to look back upon the Earth.  The Milky Way shines around him and he can see that his beloved city of Rome has shrunk to insignificance with the distance. Planetary spheres revolve and from this perspective Earth appears as a banded globe, snow fields at its polar regions and burning desert along its middle. Two temperate zones line either side of the torrid middle section.

Cicero presents a perspective in which Rome is just a dot, an infinitesimal speck completely defying its everyday import as the center of all the western world. The vastness of both Earth and the cosmos are overwhelming to Scipio, who awakens full of Stoic resignation to leading a good life in a world that utterly exceeds him. Cicero’s purpose was to show that public service was a divinely sanctioned activity, to show that there was a relationship between human society and the order of the universe. Scipio must “contemplate the heavens in order to act rightly on Earth.” That was 2,000 years ago.

We go to space because we cannot help ourselves. It is there, and we go. And what good does it do us? Do we get the perspective of Scipio, of Troilius? Do we become better people?

Image of the Earth as imagined from space from a manuscript by Macrobius on the Dream of Scipio, year 1150. This is the oldest image of the Earth from space in the western tradition.
public domain | wikimedia commons

I think so. Space exploration helps us grow as human beings. We are driven to seek beyond…and the beyond of space is the most positive of any exploration and discovery story in the history of humankind. At least in our nearby planets, there are no first peoples to destroy. We can go as our better selves, as the people we should be. We have the opportunity to do that better.

Every penny on space exploration is spent here on Earth, paying people’s salaries, developing technologies, and supporting private companies. The economic development seeded by government-sponsored space exploration over the years is astonishing. People nod their heads and say yes, Tang, and Velcro. Oh, and all of GPS. But that’s just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg. Space exploration has driven American manufacturing to do better, to be more innovative, to be more careful, to have higher expectations and expertise. Space exploration has drawn thousands of people into STEM fields, where they go on to drive forward every aspect of science and technology.

By using the story of space exploration and the emotions that go with it, we can draw people into action, into learning science and engineering, writing, art, management, outreach, teaching. And these motivated and trained people go out everywhere in our world and inspire us all.

I came into space exploration from a different path. My dreams were not about space but about groups of people united by a quest, about animals, galloping horses, and endless horizons. My dreams weren’t like Scipio’s, but in the end my dreams did lead me space exploration: The team united on a quest and the endless horizon. The biggest horizon of all.

In 2011, two scientists from NASA wrote me and asked whether I’d like to work on a mission proposal tied to my theoretical research on planet formation. The answer to that question was yes. And so we began a six-year process that ended in the selection of our mission concept, called Psyche after the asteroid we were pursuing, for flight.

The Psyche mission is primary exploration. We humans have, robotically and with humans, explored rocky planets like Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon, and we have explored gas and ice planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and moons with icy surfaces like Europa and Enceladus, but we have never explored a body with a metallic surface. The data we have from Earth indicates that at least parts of Psyche’s surface is metal, probably fine-grained, and that Psyche as a body is likely to be half or more metal.

We observe Psyche from the Earth. We can bounce radar off Psyche, and, amazingly, we can receive the bouncing signal back and see how its interaction with Psyche has changed its signal. We measure the light from the Sun that bounces off Psyche and we compare it to light straight from the Sun, to see what interacting with Psyche has done to that light. The reflected light and the reflected radar together give us a guess of Psyche’s volume, and that its surface seems to be largely made of metal.

We watch Psyche in its orbit and measure the tiny deflections that the gravity of distant objects has caused, and in this way, we measure Psyche’s mass. The mass and the volume together give us Psyche’s density. Its density is greater than rock, but not as great as metal. We conclude that Psyche is a mixture of rock, metal, and void space, the vacuum of space, in fractures that perhaps extend through its entirety, making Psyche a rubble pile.

Meantime, we have only the blurriest and tiniest images of Psyche. Psyche is about the size of Switzerland, and it is orbiting three times farther from the Sun than is the Earth, so mainly it looks like a point of light from the vantage of Earth.

Psyche may be part of the metal core and rocky shroud of a planetesimal, a tiny planet that would have collided with and joined the growing Earth, Mercury, Venus, or Mars, had it not been stranded in the asteroid belt. But we don’t actually know what Psyche is and we won’t know until we get there.

Our human powers are limited and there is only so much we can discover from this great distance. Our human powers are limited, and though we work and work at getting better at managing mega-projects like robotic spacecraft that visit asteroids, we are flawed. We are optimists and in the end the project costs more, and takes more time, then we had hoped or even than we had planned, serious and thoughtful and grave, with margins on every measure.

And then there was COVID. People were distracted, and frightened, and they no longer met by chance in the hallway to work out problems, because mainly they were at home. People in our contracting organizations were frightened and distracted and made mistakes and then people had to find those mistakes as we tested and built the spacecraft.

The terrible moment finally came in summer 2022 when we had to admit we were not ready to launch. We will not launch this beautiful spacecraft in 2022. I hope and believe we will launch it next year, but all depends upon NASA’s permission.

Someday a spacecraft will come silently from the freezing darkness of space and gently curve into an orbit around that enigmatic Switzerland-sized asteroid Psyche. We’ll get images back here on Earth, and we’ll all wonder at once what this strange solar system neighbor is. Probably everything I wrote here will be proven wrong. We do our best, but our human imaginations are seldom a match for the truth of our incredible solar system.

When that spacecraft arrives, I hope it will be our Psyche spacecraft, but there are no promises in space exploration. Two thousand of us have done our best for ten years, but we didn’t quite hit the deadline for 2022. Cross your fingers, keep them crossed, I know it hurts, but keep them crossed for Psyche to launch in 2023.

Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton is a vice president at Arizona State University and Principal Investigator of the NASA Psyche mission. Her memoir, A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman, was published this year by William Morrow.