Monday, July 18, 2011

National navel-gazing

As Atlantis prepares to return to Earth, ending the era of the space shuttle, we have the discouraging news that Congress may cancel the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's long-planned successor to the Hubble.

The Hubble Space Telescope is, simply put, one of the greatest observatories ever built. The discoveries it made possible are simply astonishing. The ability to service and upgrade the HST on-orbit -- done five times! -- has been one of the few unambiguously good reasons to have space shuttles. Without the shuttle, the Hubble will die, and we'll have no way to repair it the next time.

Why cancel the JWST? Money, of course. It is over budget, by a not-insignificant $1.5B. But this telescope is exceedingly advanced tech. What high-tech project hasn't overrun its budget a bit?

How bad have things gotten: Consider:
  • America has long forgotten how we ever got to the moon in 1969. 
  • We abandoned construction (in 1987) of the Superconducting Super Collider, handing leadership in basic physics to the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. 
  • By week's end, we'll have shut down the shuttle program, and -- for how many years? -- America will lack the ability even to send crew to low Earth orbit and our own space station. Fifty years after John Glenn orbited the Earth, how sad is that?
Now we're on the verge of letting our best eyes on the universe go dark, loath to replace them.

Yes, the national debt and annual deficits must be cut. To do so, spending must be cut. But, %^&$#!! it, spending on basic science and space exploration has been slashed! As I noted on May 30th, in the post Crocodile Cheers:
We can't afford to look outward, some say. We have too many problems on Earth. So: how much does NASA cost? Since 1975, NASA has never gotten more than 1.01% percent (and often much less) of the federal budget. (And it's all spent on Earth, I hasten to remind.) The 2012 request for NASA is about $18B -- about a half percent of the overall federal budget. That proposed $18B for the upcoming government fiscal year is scarcely 1% of the year's proposed deficit. Lack of money isn't the lone reason the space program has floundered -- again, read the Schmitt piece -- but lack of money is a reason.
As a citizen, I find this steady retreat from the future depressing.

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