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.
Why Science Demands We Keep The Iran Nuclear Deal
“But if we end the deal and reimpose sanctions, all the nuclear non-proliferation policy victories immediately dissolve. The current agreement gives us a decade of peace, 25 years of absolute accountability, and regular inspections that ensure the stockpiles of radioactive materials include nothing suitable for creating a nuclear weapon. The rest of the world’s scientific experts agree. If Trump has evidence that there’s something else afoot, he owes it to the American people and the world to present it. The prior two secretaries of energy were Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz: prominent atomic and nuclear physicists; today’s secretary of energy is Rick Perry, who has been silent on the Iran nuclear deal since the 2015 diatribe that some speculate got him this job in the first place. If the United States rejects and pulls out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we’ll see one of our greatest fears come true: ‘America First’ equates to ‘America Alone.’”
In 2015, the culmination of 13 years of intense negotiations between the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran all came to fruition with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known commonly as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association, to non-enrichment and non-proliferation terms, and in in return had sanctions against them lifted. Nuclear power, as has been the case since Eisenhower, has been there for the energy benefit of all humanity, and this deal was what put that in place. Trump, meanwhile, has come out and called this one of the worst deals in American history. Is that true, though?
Let’s take a look at what the science actually says about nuclear weapons, enrichment, and the true dangers, and then compare it to the deal. I think you’ll come to the same conclusion as me: that this deal is not only worth keeping, it’s a stroke of genius.
Winners And Losers In NASA’s Budget For 2018 And Beyond
“Loser: Long-term stability. As big of a fight as it was to get this bill passed and the crippling proposed cuts by the President overturned, it expires on September 30th of this year. All of these battles will likely need to be fought again in the very short term; WFIRST, James Webb, the Office of Education, and NASA’s Earth Science will quite possibly see additional attempts to curtail, cut, or eliminate them entirely. In past administrations, it was rare to see an already funded-and-agreed-upon mission cancelled. If this year is any indication of what’s to come, there will likely be additional battles required to ensure that many of these missions are seen through to fruition.”
Last week, both houses of Congress put forth the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, where after threatening a veto, it was signed into law by President Trump on Friday. On the surface, it looks like a tremendous victory for science across-the-board, as many programs that were threatened to be cut or cancelled had their funding restored. However, it’s extremely important to remember that despite all the efforts that went into overturning the President’s proposed cuts, this victory only extends for 6 month; on September 30th, this $1.3T budget expires. At that point, all of these hard-won victories for science, education, and the American people may need to be battles that are fought all over again. In addition, there are some dangerous new precedents that are set here, including the warmongering “America First National Space Strategy.”
Be pleased with the victories that have just been won in this latest budget fight, but don’t get complacent. The war for the soul of America is just getting started.
Cancelling WFIRST Will Permanently Ruin NASA
“We absolutely cannot let this project go down without a fight. If WFIRST gets cancelled, it’s a sign that even the most important NASA project, as determined by internal, external, and independent reviewers, is subject to political whims. These projects take more than a single presidency to design, approve, build, and launch. Federal funding for these vital missions that enhance all of society must not be allowed to disappear because one human — even if it’s the president — wills it. The joys, wonder, knowledge, and benefits that come from exploring and understanding the Universe are greater than any individual.”
When it comes to NASA, there are three main functions that make up the overwhelming majority of its budget: science, exploration, and space operations. Within science, the largest and most important missions, spread across planetary science, astrophysics, Earth science and heliophysics, are known as flagship missions. According to Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate of NASA, “What we learn from these flagship missions is why we study the Universe. This is civilization-scale science… If we don’t do this, we aren’t NASA.” When someone (ahem… Trump) comes in, after decades of planning, and proposes to scrap an already-designed flagship mission, it threatens to end science-as-we-know-it at NASA.
The United States must not cede leadership in the space and science arena to Japan, Russia, Europe, China, India and Canada the same way it did with the superconducting supercollider 25 years ago. This time, humanity’s capability of understanding the entire Universe is what’s at stake.
Horrible FY2019 Budget To Gut NASA Astrophysics, Destroying Cutting-Edge Science
“WFIRST is unprecedented: it’s an observatory the size of Hubble, with the same depth, but with more than 50 times the field-of-view. It would be outfitted with two incredible instruments: a wide-field imager and a coronagraph. The imager is capable of surveying huge areas of the Universe to better understand galaxies, the intergalactic medium, dark matter, and dark energy. It would find thousands of new Type Ia supernovae out to unprecedented distances, and determine to better than 1% whether dark energy is a cosmological constant or something more exotic.”
Today, February 12th, 2018, the Trump administration unveiled their budget proposal for the Fiscal Year 2019, proposing huge cuts to a variety of departments. The biggest surprise loser, however, is NASA. Not only will the Office of Education be eliminated, along with five NASA Earth Science missions, but the flagship astrophysics mission of the 2020s, WFIRST, has been put on the chopping block. NASA gets one of these flagship missions every 10 years; Hubble was it for the 1990s, there were none for the 2000s owing to the “faster, better, cheaper” debacle, and James Webb will be the one for the 2010s. WFIRST, for years, has been the plan for the 2020s, with all the design work complete. It will measure the distant Universe, from exoplanets to galaxies to supernovae and dark energy, as never before. And unless we work with Congress to save it, we won’t have flagship-level science coming out of the 2020s. As Thomas Zurbuchen said last month, speaking for NASA:
“What we learn from these flagship missions is why we study the Universe. This is civilization-scale science… If we don’t do this, we aren’t NASA.”
Come read and understand what the horrible FY2019 budget proposal would do to NASA, and then contact your congresspeople. The time to act is now.
Sorry America, We’re Not Going Back To The Moon
“America is home to some of the greatest scientists, engineers, astronauts, administrators, and organizations in the entire world. With the people and facilities we have today, we could put a human on the Moon or even on Mars within the next 10 years, if only we invest in it. But grandstanding, lofty promises, and a dearth of funding will yield the same results they always have: a nation whose greatest dreams go unfulfilled. What we can accomplish as a species is limited only by what’s physically possible and what we invest in it. Our ambitions to venture beyond low-Earth orbit are achievable, but only if we make it so. Unless there’s a plan to increase NASA’s funding to sufficient levels to send humans to worlds beyond our own, America is never going to get there.”
Last week, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, declaring America’s ambitions to return to the Moon with a crewed mission. This is in line with the vision laid out by the Trump administration earlier this year, but with no additional funding provided for the endeavor, it’s all but a certainty that this won’t happen. When we went to the Moon the first time, we were investing approximately 5% of federal expenditures in NASA; today, that figure has declined to just 0.4%, the lowest figure since 1959. We have the people, the technology, the facilities, and the will to take humanity not only to the Moon, but to Mars or even beyond. All it will take is full federal funding and an ambitious timetable. This vision offers neither, ensuring that it will never happen under the current plan.
Sorry, America, we’re not going back to the Moon. And even if we chose to, the Moon shouldn’t be our goal, anyway.
Repealing Fuel Economy Standards To Cost American Households Nearly $1000 Per Year
“Across the board — cars, crossovers, SUVs, minivans, and pickups — the fuel efficiency of vehicles have continued to climb steadily, even just during the past decade. An economic analysis details the impact that the impact that this can have on the typical American household. For middle-income families, defined as households making under $100,000 in 1980 and under $120,000 in 2014, transportation costs make up a total of approximately 20% of total expenditures, a figure that rises to 30% for low-income families. Yet the increased fuel economy alone has saved families a tremendous amount: an estimated $17,000 over the 1980-2014 time period.”
Earlier this year, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and the Trump Administration announced their plans to roll back the Obama-era regulations on fuel economy standards. Since 1975, the first year that fuel standards were enacted, the savings to Americans has been tremendous: a total of 1.5 trillion gallons of gas have been saved, resulting in a direct cost savings of approximately $4 trillion to US consumers. Meanwhile, the costs have been borne by the automotive industry, not passed along to customers, resulting in a huge boon to the American economy across-the-board. It’s the low-and-middle income American families that benefit the most, and a rare case where the science and math support a universal conclusion, regardless of political affiliation.
So why are we talking about repealing the regulations? Don’t let this issue fly under the radar; get informed today!
Sorry, Donald Trump, It Can’t Be Infinity
“But just because we can’t explore infinity doesn’t means we shouldn’t explore things to the absolute limits of what’s physically allowable. The purpose of the National Space Council is to advise and assist the President on matters of national space policy and strategy. It is chaired by the Vice President and is composed exclusively of cabinet members and presidential appointees. The only two spots for scientific advisers— the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy —are presently both vacant. There is no guarantee that either one of them will be filled by an actual scientist or someone with scientific expertise, even though those are the only people who possess the necessary skills to succeed at those jobs.”
Last week, Donald Trump restored the National Space Council, promising to take America and the world to new heights in space. He also made some statements claiming that this is infinity here, and that we don’t know, but it could be infinity. In both cases, the statements don’t quite match the facts, as the funding cuts proposed by the President are inconsistent with increased exploration efforts, and, more to the point, we know we’ll never access infinity. That includes, by the way, even if we wait around for an infinite amount of time! The amount of Universe that we can reach is finite and quantified; the amount of Universe we can observe today is finite and quantified; and the full suite of things that will ever impart information, photons, particles, etc., to us is finite and quantified. It can’t be infinity, as we’ve learned by doing science.
Don’t bring your uninformed opinion to a matter that can be settled by scientific fact, but rather bring an open mind and a willingness to learn. There’s a whole Universe out there worth knowing!
One Critical Mission Is Now The Make-Or-Break Future For NASA Earth Science
“When it comes to viewing anything in space that changes — whether it’s a distant galaxy, star, or even the Sun or Earth in our own backyard — the goal is to measure it as frequently and comprehensively as possible. For the Earth, that means imaging the planet at high resolution, with as many instruments as we can, covering the entire globe in as little time as possible, while in close orbit around our planet. The greatest Earth-monitoring satellite of all time, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1), is scheduled to launch in just a few months, and will give us climate and weather modeling data that’s leaps and bounds better than anything we’ve ever had. It also has to last until the United States comes to our scientific senses, because with a suite of cancelled Earth observing missions and JPSS-2 in funding jeopardy, it’s our only hope for obtaining this type of quality data for the foreseeable future.”
Later this year, one of the most epic Earth-monitoring missions of all time, the NASA/NOAA collaboration JPSS-1, will launch. With a suite of five unique scientific instruments designed to improve and enhance climate and weather monitoring, it will be a tremendous asset in disaster prevention and mitigation. It will give full global coverage twice per day, on a continuous basis, with the JPSS program designed to run for the next 21 years, at least. But that will only happen if we continue to fund Earth science and to value Earth monitoring. From coastal areas to wildfires to hurricanes to storms at sea and so much more, humanity relies on an intricate knowledge of what’s occurring on our world for our safety, security, and our economic and commercial endeavors. It’s incredibly exciting that JPSS is slated to launch in just a few months, but if we’re not careful, it might be the pinnacle of human achievement, in this arena, for decades to come.
We can do better, and the whole Earth is relying on us. Come learn what JPSS is all about, and what we need to do to continue to push, positively, into the future.
Trump’s NASA Budget Eliminates Education Office, Plunging America Into The Dark
“NASA’s Office of Education, in its current incarnation, oversees and administers around sixty different programs that benefit educators, K-12 students, as well as undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students and researchers. With the Trump administration officially announcing their budget for the next fiscal year, they provide only $37 million for NASA’s Education Office, with one major stipulation: the office must be eliminated entirely.”
So, here we are, encountering one another on the internet. There’s a really good chance that this is because you have some interest in space, science, astronomy, astrophysics, or some related area. Although I am an astrophysicist with a Ph,D. in theoretical physics, my focus over the past decade or so has been on education and public outreach: science communication. There’s an incredible Universe out there that we’re exploring, and the more we learn about it, the more effort we need to put into education and outreach if we want a society that’s with us on the cutting edge. That understands where we are and what we’re doing; that creates valuable opportunities for the next generation of scientists to participate and contribute to the enterprise of science.
So why, then, would we be okay with just eliminating NASA’s Office of Education? If we care about America, we won’t be. Read on.