The Future Of NASA Astrophysics Depends On Undoing Trump’s FY2021 Budget Request
“NASA has always spent more than half of its budget on developing large missions; 2019 was the first time the Astrophysics Division’s numbers dropped below that figure. When a flagship mission overruns, it never eats the rest of the science program; it only can delay the next flagship. And flagships aren’t expensive because of mismanagement; they’re expensive because they’re ambitious, first-of-its-kind science.
Before any servicing missions at all, Hubble cost about $3 billion in late-1980s dollars. If it had started in 2007, the same time Webb started, it would have cost $8.3 billion in inflated dollars. Meanwhile, WFIRST is not having any of the problems that plagued Webb, and is coming in on-schedule and on-budget, with 100 times the field-of-view of Hubble and up to 1500 times faster for large surveys at the same depth. The future of scientific exploration is right at our fingertips, if only we’re bold enough to continuously invest in it.”
Earlier this week, the President’s office released their budget request for the 2021 fiscal year. Just as in every year prior, the administration has proposed terminating the flagship program at NASA Astrophysics by ending the federal funding for it. Flagship missions are arguably the most scientifically fruitful endeavor that NASA undertakes, and without it, we would never have had the Hubble Space Telescope or many other legendary observatories that have forever changed our view of the Universe.
We can have a bright scientific future, but even one year without this essential funding could bring generations of efforts all crashing down. Here’s what we need to do.
One Of These Four Missions Will Be Selected As NASA’s Next Flagship For Astrophysics
“Choosing which of these missions to build and fly will, in many ways, inform our plans for the next 30 years (or more) of astronomy. NASA is the pre-eminent space agency in the world. This is where science, research, development, discovery, and innovation all come together. The spinoff technologies alone justify the investment, but that’s not why we do it. We are here to discover the Universe. We are here to learn all that we can about the cosmos and our place within it. We are here to find out what the Universe looks like and how it came to be the way it is today.
People will always argue over budgets — the penny-pinchers are always happy to propose something that’s faster, cheaper, and worse — but the reality is this: the budget for NASA Astrophysics as a whole is just $1.35 billion per year: less than 0.1% of the federal discretionary budget and less than 0.03% of the total federal budget. And still, for that tiny amount, NASA has steadily built a flagship program that’s the envy of the free world.”
Every 10 years, NASA performs a decadal survey, where it outlines its highest mission priorities for the next 10 years. The 2020 decadal is happening imminently, and once the recommendations are submitted to the National Resource Council at the National Academies of Science, the four flagship finalists will be ranked. This will determine NASA astrophysics’ direction for the 2030s.
James Webb is the flagship for the 2010s; WFIRST is it for the 2020s. What will we choose for the 2030s? It will be one of these four finalists! Dream big, everyone.
NASA’s Next Flagship Mission May Be A Crushing Disappointment For Astrophysics
“This is NASA. This is the pre-eminent space agency in the world. This is where science, research, development, discovery, and innovation all come together. The spinoff technologies alone justify the investment, but that’s not why we do it. We are here to discover the Universe. We are here to learn all that we can about the cosmos and our place within it. We are here to find out what the Universe looks like and how it came to be the way it is today.
It’s time for the United States government to step up to the plate and invest in fundamental science in a way the world hasn’t seen in decades. It’s time to stop asking the scientific community to do more with less, and give them a realistic but ambitious goal: to do more with more. If we can afford an ill-thought-out space force, perhaps we can afford to learn about the greatest unexplored natural resource of all. The Universe, and the vast unknowns hiding in the great cosmic ocean.”
While the Trump administration just proposed a new branch of the military, a “space force” if you will, NASA has just demanded that every one of the proposed astrophysics flagship missions abandon their large ambitions and present a scaled-down, sub-$5 billion version of their proposal. That means smaller telescopes, reduced capabilities, and less knowledge that will be revealed about the Universe. Every single one of the four will suffer from this, but the biggest losers may be us. In terms of science, society, spinoffs, and civilization, we’ll all be poorer if we fail to invest in something that truly makes a difference in this world.
Why grandstand when you can literally grandly stand where no human has stood before: at the frontiers of knowledge? It’s time to invest in something that matters.