Scientists joke that it can take longer for a space mission to escape from Washington, D.C., than to cross the solar system: the harshness of outer space is nothing compared with the rigors of securing administrative, presidential and congressional approval. Never has this been truer than for a mission to Pluto. In one form or another, a space probe to the outermost planet--the only major unvisited world in the solar system--has been traveling for more than a decade and still has yet to clear the Beltway. Unless Congress acts this summer, the mission will crash-land about five billion kilometers short of its goal.
The question before Congress is whether to go along with a Bush administration decision to abort the Pluto project altogether. The president's budget for fiscal year 2003 excludes it. A similar situation arose last year, when the administration left Pluto out of the budget and Congress put it in.
This article was originally published with the title Last Chance for the Last Planet.