Studying the universe — perhaps even modern science as a whole — is as American as apple pie and baseball.
Although America was not the first country to launch a satellite into orbit, it has, for more than half a century, pioneered the exploration of the universe from the advantageous perspective that sensors, robots and telescopes offer once they are off-world. Looking through a telescope in space — as opposed to one on the ground — is, to an astrophysicist, as revelatory as a child’s first sense that shapes and faces are physical, can be touched and explored, and that vision is a meaningful way to understand where one is.
Far from the water-laden, turbulent atmosphere that protects Earth’s cozy climate, a telescope can study otherwise invisible aspects of the cosmos: black holes, the evolving structure of the universe, the birthing of stars and our closest, smallest neighbors, some comparable in size to Jupiter, yet roaming the universe alone. We even have evidence that planets similar to Earth may be quite common in orbits around stars other than the sun. These discoveries made by astrophysical experiments in space have completely transformed our view of where we are and how this planet came to be.
Twenty years ago, when I started graduate school at Caltech, if I said I wanted to find planets around other stars, people in the field would laugh and say, “Go watch ‘Star Trek.’” Now the study of “exoplanets” is a rich field of research that addresses fundamental questions surrounding our own origins. Much of that knowledge comes from telescopes in space.
This priceless knowledge is a result of the dedicated effort of thousands of people over several decades. It could not have been achieved without the resources and forward-thinking mentality that NASA enables. Today, however, our country’s political climate has put this groundbreaking work in jeopardy.
I recently chaired an independent review committee for NASA’s astrophysics division to conduct a senior review, the highest-level peer review that division conducts. Our group of 10 experts was tasked with examining the existing telescopes and other types of sensors currently in operation, some in orbit around Earth, others trailing at huge distances and orbiting the sun.
There are 10 current missions, representing an investment of billions of dollars over three decades, including smaller contributions by the European and Japanese space agencies. All of these spacecraft have unique capabilities to render facets of the universe visible for scientific scrutiny, capabilities that probably will never be replicated.
Our committee’s charge involved ranking the scientific value of these missions, and helping the senior administration at NASA allocate available funds to ensure the highest-quality science for the next four years. For three weeks, we professors, researchers and other professionals, none of whom was directly involved in any of the projects, deliberated pro bono to develop a plan that would keep the field healthy within the specified budget guidelines.
When we heard what the guidelines were, we were horrified. We estimated that NASA was operating many of these missions at a level that was below 2% of the initial construction and launch expenses. Standard management practice suggests that 10% of the initial construction cost is a reasonable annual budget for operating a facility. We had to work with a total of $75 million. That is what the government spends roughly every 10 minutes. It is less than a third of the L.A. Dodgers’ payroll in 2014, and represents a contribution of a little less than 25 cents per American each year.
In the next few years, this mission operating budget is projected to fall to less than 40% of this year’s value. As a result, several fully operational spacecraft will be turned off — and lost in space.
Because our panel sought to maintain as much scientific breadth as possible, other projects have been reduced in funding almost to the point of simply collecting the data but not analyzing it. If the current budget guidelines are put into law, teams of scientists, engineers and software experts will be laid off. The collective talent of these groups will be permanently lost.
Is this extreme austerity, an artifact of the current political climate, really the right way forward? The United States is in a better position than ever to advance human understanding of the universe in ways unimaginable to Ben Franklin as he established American science many years ago. Are we, as a nation, to be remembered by future generations for building these remarkable eyes on the universe, simply to let them drift away into darkness or vaporize in the atmosphere, when they can still see things no one has ever imagined? Are we not obliged to continue this bold exploration, with vigor, for the benefit of all of humanity?
B.R. Oppenheimer is curator in charge, professor and chairman of the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History.