This is going to be a bit of a long rambling post. But it’s on a subject close to me personally and professionally.
As most of you know, I’m a professional star-gazer and a lifelong fan of space exploration. And right now, the state of space is in flux.
On Friday, the shuttle Atlantis blasted off for the 135th and final shuttle mission. The Space Shuttle has had a long and somewhat checkered history. On the one hand, it has cost billions of dollars and 14 lives. On the other, it has enabled the construction of a space station, the launch and repair of spacecraft that have vastly expanded our understanding of the universe and has fired the imaginations of millions. I remember watching the early launches and landings in elementary school and the thrill they gave us. STS-41-C, when Challenger captured and repair Solar Max, fascinated me. And I remember standing in a cold March morning, watching STS-109’s dawn launch from the VIP seats. It lit up the landscape right as the sun rose, arced through a cloud and thundered over the Atlantic. It was a spectacle that warranted near-biblical metaphors. As I’ve said many times, that is the way to waste taxpayer money.
It will be some time before we have any successor to the Shuttle. Three administrations in a row have bumbled around with their “plans”. And while private industry is gearing up to take over many launch duties, exploration remains on hold. I was born in 1972, the year of the last moon mission. I never dreamed that incompetent bumbling, political hackery and a singular lack of vision would keep us from fulfilling the promise that Apollo delivered. Yet here we are, in 2011, and the stars are further away than they were on the day I was born.
As disappointing as our manned space flight has been, however, NASA’s science programs have been as stunning a success. Voyagers 1 and 2 continue to send back data from the edge of our solar system with 33 years and 10 billion miles on their odometers. The Spirit rover, designed to explore Mars for 90 days, instead explored it for 2000. Hubble, now a grizzled veteran of 21 summers and 100,000 orbits, has changed almost every branch of astrophysics. NASA has launched or been partners in over 30 space telescopes, almost all of which have been spectacularly successful. (Take it from an insider: the builders know what’s on the line and engineer the hell out of their satellites. They are built to succeed).
Now how can I, a conservative-libertarian, support such things? Well, I have a personal stake, of course: I’ve had the privilege of working on and analyzing data from several space missions. But fundamentally, it comes down to my belief that basic science, pure science, is one of the few things government should be doing. de Tocqueville put in best in Democracy in America.
If those who are called on to direct the affairs of nations in our time can clearly and in good time understand these new tendencies which will soon be irresistible, they will see that, granted enlightenment and liberty, people living in a democratic age are quite certain to bring the industrial side of science to perfection anyhow and that henceforth the whole energy of organized society should be directed to the support of higher studies and the fostering of a passion for pure science.
Nowadays the need is to keep men interested in theory. They will look after the practical side of things for themselves. So, instead of perpetually concentrating attention on the minute examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it therefrom sometimes and lift it to contemplation of first causes.
Applications are for the private sector; exploration needs the occasional boost from the public.
I can’t find the quote but de Tocqueville also worried that Americans, being so imminently practical, would not indulge themselves in great monuments and achievements for the ages. NASA, both in exploration and investigation, crushes that fear. Apollo was a greater achievement than all the wonders of the world put together. If humans ever do escape this planet and make themselves almost immune from extinction, it will be the greatest achievement in the history of history. Our satellites have found hundreds of new worlds and looked back to the dawn of the universe itself. Aristotle would be green with envy.
I bring this up, of course, because the House just unveiled their budget proposal for NASA, which cuts 10% of NASA science and ends JWST — NASA’s next big science mission. I have mixed feeling about this. JWST is massively over-budget and has had a myriad of technical problems, which has been hurting other missions. On the other hand, it would be an incredible mission if it took place and its backers insist the big problems are behind them. And the current proposal doesn’t move the money to other missions; it just makes it disappear.
As someone who supports steep budget cuts, I’m constantly looking for things to kill. And I’m glad the GOP is taking on ethanol, our bloated transportation budget and, just maybe, our outsized defense budget and entitlements. But basic science is one of the few things we should prioritize and one of the few things that was not run up in the recent budget explosion. I recently saw a talk from a NASA higher up. With the expected cuts, we will, by the end of the decade, have entire regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are as invisible to us as they were to cave men. A flat level of funding for 2012, with JWST continuation contingent on a top-to-bottom review of the program, would hold the line on the budget without hurting the future and darkening our electronic eyes, perhaps forever.
(Space science has its practical side, as well. Any time you are talking space science — from detector technology to control systems — you’re talking about things that have practical, frequently military uses. One instrument I’ve seen uses a holographic glass technology used for the Heads Up Display of fighter aircraft. Science is one of the few government endeavors that actually has an economic multiplier, although how great it is — estimates range from 2 to 10 — is debatable.)
The GOP talks a lot about American exceptionalism. As an insider, I can tell you that there are few fields where America is more exceptional than astrophysics. In terms of degrees granted, papers published, missions launched and discoveries made, we eclipse the rest of the world combined. Around the globe, America is astronomy. Can we not find a way to keep our budget under control without sacrificing that?
Feel free to blast me in the comments if you think that I’m just pleading for my own slice of the federal pie. But I’m trying to be as objective as possible. Even before this became my life — and who knows if it will be for much longer — I loved this stuff. As I said — this is the way to waste taxpayer money.