earth and moon image

NASA may be closing in on one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time — that we are not alone in the universe.

That’s because the recent discovery of active water streams on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter combined with the Mars Curiosity rover’s findings about the planet’s water-rich history — a more life friendly environment — means scientists are buoyed again about the prospect of life on Mars.

It is also a reminder of how successful NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has been in “following the water” and understanding how life could have formed and possibly even survive today on Mars. But we should not forget how difficult this achievement has been.

Understanding Mars has been a detective story in which the clues go back 3 billion years and are spread across the expanse of the entire planet — both on the surface and underneath. And then there is the basic question of how to detect life if it exists. Might life as we know it be somehow different on Mars?

A combination of ingenuity, hard work and teamwork have repeatedly triumphed over these challenges. It’s the same kind of NASA “can do” spirit that captivates us in the book and movie “The Martian.” NASA’s achievements at Mars — both scientific and engineering — during the past decade have been nothing short of remarkable.

And the public and lawmakers alike should continue to support a robust program for the exploration of the Red Planet. One day, perhaps not as far away as we might think, astronauts will set foot there. Whether there is life on Mars or not, the knowledge we have gained and the water we have found might help them survive and provide them with the fuel for the return voyage to Earth.

And it’s not only Mars that needs closer scrutiny. It may come as a surprise to many, but Jupiter’s moon Europa probably has a vast ocean locked under its permanent ice cover that contains more water than all the oceans of Earth combined. And we already know that Saturn’s moon Titan contains hydrocarbon lakes and seas rich in organics. These “ocean worlds” of the outer solar system have now joined Mars as the best places in our solar system to harbor life outside of Earth.

The first step of an intense exploration of Europa is beginning with NASA’s upcoming Europa multiple flyby mission. The exploration of Europa will be one of the most challenging and exciting in history — with landers and ultimately autonomous submarines to explore the ocean after boring through miles of ice.

In my years in the NASA space program, nothing may have been more rewarding than the enthusiasm that space exploration engenders in young people. For many, myself included, space exploration inspires students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Not all of them will become rocket scientists, of course. They might end up as doctors, founders of software companies, or inventors of new technologies in other fields. This is an important but almost an invisible benefit of our nation’s space program that we should appreciate.

Exploration is at the core of the American spirit, and public support for NASA’s voyages of exploration has never wavered while political support has been bipartisan. Although we live at a time of increasing partisanship and difficult budget decisions, we must continue to lead the world in discovery and continue to robustly fund the space program.

These explorations are small in the scope of national resources, but they are incalculably valuable in satisfying our most deep-seated needs to understand our world and our place in it. They inspire generations of our children to appreciate and study science and engineering, but perhaps most importantly, they bring out the best in our humanity and our nation.

Michael Watkins is the Clare Cockrell Williams Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin and the Director of the Center for Space Research. He worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for more than 20 years and continues to collaborate with NASA on missions.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.