The Intersection

I LOVE all things space–arguably more than the next girl. For years I wanted to be an astrobiologist. Infinite possibilities and the ultimate opportunity to explore the unknown. And it’s no secret to readers that I adore Carl Sagan and Cosmos, which fostered a love and appreciation of science in so many of us.


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All I’m saying is, just perhaps–for the time being–we might be better off spending the kind of figures currently invested in large scale BIG ‘what if?’ projects on more proximate concerns. No doubt the mission of Kepler is really cool, but why rush to search for planets like ours when it behooves us to focus efforts on preserving life as we know it here.

My exuberance over the possibility of an eventual planetary census is tempered as this week I’m hearing about university cuts to every budget and program possible. And as college tuition continues to rise, high school students are emailing me that their education feels ever more elusive in an unprecedented economic crisis. I understand that these projects have been in the pipeline for a long time, that they seek important answers, and have the potential to change everything. But, they also might not succeed. Kepler cost close to 600 million dollars and overruns even put the mission in jeopardy at one point.

In 2009, we need to balance budgets so that we’re doing a better job to foster the next the generation of scientific leaders who are going to pursue the coming decades’ BIG ideas. And we must additionally put a fair share of support into the projects that will preserve what we’ve got at home on Planet Earth. As I wrote recently, in a climate of limited budgets, I’d rather see funding for more immediate global concerns like improving agricultural yield, preparing for climate change, and mitigating the impacts of ocean acidification. And no, it’s not comparing apples and oranges. It’s dollars and a collective future. A glance at the number of digits in NOAA’s budget and you’ll understand what I’m getting at–something’s wrong when such a vital agency is so overlooked that it’s never even been authorized by Congress.

I want more than most anyone to explore the cosmos, it’s just not our highest priority from my perspective. That said, with Kepler’s Friday launch set to examine more than 100,000 sun-like stars in the Swan and Lyre constellations, you bet I’ll be watching and listening with great interest.


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Comments

  1. #1 Erasmussimo
    March 3, 2009

    I did my master’s thesis on binary stars, so while I’m not a professional astronomer, I have a strong interest in the subject. And I strongly endorse the point you make here. Yes, pure astronomy is an important research area, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that NASA research objectives are driven more by public relations than science. The search for extraterrestrial life is a very sexy topic, but I don’t see it as fundamentally more important than a large number of mundane topics. Now, I realize that NASA is very good at tucking real science into the projects that are politically justified with sexy goals. For example, the photometer on Kepler will be doing a lot more than just looking for planetary eclipses. It will also be able to measure tiny variations in luminosity of main sequence stars. This will tell us some important things about stellar structure and evolution. That’s real science. However, I continue to worry that the science budget is decided in a rather sexist manner, in the sense that the politically sexiest projects get funded while the homely but serious projects have to tag along behind the sexy ones.

    And yes, I think that we should concentrate more money on earth science from orbit.

  2. #2 Bill
    March 3, 2009

    I can’t understand why more people don’t see this. What good will exploring be if there’s nothing at home to return to?

  3. #3 Linda
    March 3, 2009

    I, too, am fascinated with the Cosmos and all the possibilities of what might be out there. But I agree with both you and Bill that now we must concentrate on the homefront.

  4. #4 Mercator
    March 3, 2009

    This is an interesting argument, but what it amounts to is inter mural squabbling. Maybe it would help to put things in perspective if we compare the budgets for NASA and NOAA with those of the defense department or homeland security?

  5. #5 Zym
    March 3, 2009

    Depends on the problems you are talking about. As far as I am concerned, many problems are forever unsolvable until you develop mind control rays to regulate people’s behavior en masse.

    if we compare the budgets for NASA and NOAA with those of the defense department or homeland security?

    Or Social Security. It’s the biggest single line item in the federal budget, and no rational person thinks that mess is even on the same continent as sanity. Problem is that some people consider it holy writ, and go into fits of religious apoplexy if someone so much as suggests a tiny change.

    in a climate of limited budgets.

    What climate is this? The one with the trillion dollars in stimulus?

    balance budgets so that we’re doing a better job to foster the next the generation of scientific leaders

    How does balancing the budget do that? To balance this budget you need to hack off about 1/3 to 1/2 of the federal government, or raise taxes over 100%. You think this is something we can all just hold hands and roll up our sleeves (not in that order) and fix in one fiscal year? This mess has been building since the 1940s.

    You think the politicians care? Any of them in any Party? Here in California, with people struggling, the “Oh, we care for the pooooooor!” Democrats passed the largest increase of completely regressive state taxes ever seen in the history of this country. And did the media question a single scrap of it? They don’t care either beyond the next ratings book.

    Suggest that a single, precious holy government worker gets laid off (you know, like what happens to everyone else in the world outside of a public job), and the politicos go into the same apoplexy mentioned above. Make a dent in their power? What? Have that man arrested? What? He’s done nothing wrong? then pass a law to make something he did illegal, and then arrest him!

    An Orwell character said the future can be represented by a boot stomping on a face. The real image now is a government drone sitting in a cubicle surfing the Internet for porn all day. Or a legislator going on vacation- oops! I mean a “fact finding mission” paid for by sales taxes coughed up by the poor trying to buy groceries.

  6. #6 alex
    March 4, 2009

    I am fastinatinf by this project. I would be very hape when it was succesfull.

  7. #7 Jason R
    March 4, 2009

    “but why rush to search for planets like ours when it behooves us to focus efforts on preserving life as we know it here.”

    That as I understand it has been the argument against space science since its initial inception. Its also why scientists have to find ways to make even pure discoveries and the search for knowledge relevant to the the mass public that has very little worth for science.

    I work in Information Technology with many college graduates who are very intelligent and very very few of them have any thirst or interest in gaining pure unadulterated knowledge of the universe we live in. A select few of them find it even blasphemous that we try to understand the universe.

    On a side note, If I hear one more of them talk about the end of the world in 2012, or Obama’s New World Order. I’m going to pull my hair out.

  8. #8 Chris
    March 4, 2009

    I have a problem with arguments like this. First, they have a hint of Republican anti-bear DNA collecting/volcano monitoring/etc. arguments. The implication when Sarah Palin mocks fruit fly research is that the money is better spent elsewhere (granted she’s probably not thinking of other science programs). Secondly we can play that game all day: Why spend money on volcano monitoring when we could be spending it on cancer research? Why spend it on cancer research when heart disease kills more people? And so on.

  9. #9 Ashutosh
    March 4, 2009

    I agree with you. But here’s an idea; why don’t we stop the occupation of Iraq and spend a fraction of that money on Kepler instead? There are wasteful, worthless non-scientific endeavors from which the money could be channeled toward such scientific projects. Then we may not actually have to make an either/or decision.

    And if you are interested in astrobiology you may be interested in Robert Hazen’s book.

    By the way, I work in cancer research and we do need more money for that. Resistance should be futile…

  10. #10 HD
    March 5, 2009

    What Stein said at DoC.

    Plus, I’m not interested in doing earth science; it’s fine stuff, but it’s not my gig. It’s not why I spent all that time to get a Ph.D. Now, that might sound selfish, but it’s not really: if I’m going to do stuff I’m not interested in, why shouldn’t I take that quant job or go to work for Google and make 2-3x the money? So that’s another scientist gone. Multiply that by the number of space scientists who don’t want to change disciplines. Interest is why we do this, isn’t it? And once NASA gets out of the habit of funding science missions (and they already are, getting out of the habit), the science will head over to ESA, just like HEP headed over to CERN. We cancelled TPF-I; ESA is still working on Darwin. I’ve already watched a bunch of my European colleagues leave NASA and go back to ESA.

    If you want to rail against something, rail against the manned space program. That’s where the lion’s share of NASA’s money is going, and that’s completely scientifically useless.

  11. #11 SLC
    March 5, 2009

    Re HD

    Mr. HD hits the nail on the head relative to the manned space program. This should be cut way back and reduced in priority, as proposed by physicists Bob Park and Steven Weinberg. But then we have people like Dr. Phil Plait, the bad astronomer, pontificating that Park and Weinberg don’t know what they are talking about.