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Casting Swords into Space Observatories

Earth as seen from lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

Editor’s note – Bruce Dorminey is a science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets beyond the Solar System.

Planet hunter extraordinaire Geoff Marcy recently let his frustration surface about the current state of the search for other habitable solar systems. Despite the phenomenal planet-finding success of NASA’s Kepler mission, Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, correctly pointed out that NASA budget cuts have severely hampered the hunt for extrasolar life.

A decade ago, only a few dozen extrasolar planets had been detected. Today, by some recent gravitational microlensing estimates, there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way. But without the ability to characterize these extrasolar planetary atmospheres from space, we are astrobiologically hamstrung.

NASA’s goal had been that by 2020, we would have a pretty good idea about how frequently terrestrial Earth-mass planets orbit other stars — whether those planets have atmospheres that resemble our own; and, more crucially, whether those atmospheres exhibit the telltale signs of planets harboring life.

But consider how the federal government spends our tax dollars on a daily basis. Each and every day for more than a decade, the U.S. military spent roughly $1 billion a day funding congressionally-undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast, NASA’s cancelled SIM and TPF missions were both originally estimated to have cost less than $1.5 billion dollars each.

Artist concept of the now-cancelled Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. Credit: NASA

SIM, the Space Interferometry Mission, was to have focused on finding extrasolar earths in a targeted search; its follow-on mission, NASA’s TPF, the Terrestrial Planet Finder mission, was to have characterized the atmospheres of these earth twins in an attempt to remotely detect the signatures of life.

The astronomical community continues to be resourceful as it can in working around these problems. But if NASA had followed through with the SIM and TPF missions in the timeframe that it first announced, we would have a very good idea of our own earth’s galactic pecking order by now.

Instead, war-funding has taken priority. On the home front, we’ve let the attacks of 9/11 take us down a road that has resulted in our airports resembling Orwellian netherworlds. Most of us now accept that we must basically disrobe and be physically prodded before boarding an aircraft.

Kids born at the beginning of what was supposed to be a great new millennium — remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, anyone? — have instead grown up accustomed to running the gauntlet just to take their teddy bears onto the plane with them.

Contrast the country’s current poisoned national mood with the heady days of euphoria surrounding this country’s Moon shots.

Dare we attempt to again turn at least a portion of our swords back into ploughshares?

If the U.S. is going to continue to lead the world in science and technology, the country will have to quit living in a state of perpetual geopolitical paranoia and take space seriously again.

No one wants to turn a blind eye to our national defense and NASA may never return to its glory days. But something is amiss when within a generation, we’ve gone from John F. Kennedy pointedly challenging the nation to test its mettle by safely sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade to this current era of national teeth gnashing.

Newt Gingrich was openly ridiculed on the morning TV news shows for advocating that the U.S. use private enterprise to help us put a manned lunar colony on the moon. Mitt Romney responded that he’d fire any employee that walked into his office and suggested such a plan.

Perhaps Gingrich is not the ideal messenger for jumpstarting a long dormant manned lunar program. But our country has reached a sad nadir when a presidential candidate is publicly mocked for advocating the hard work of boldly revamping our national space policy.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Stephen Thompson February 1, 2012, 5:30 PM

    I think Newt was mocked more for his plan on making the moon the 51st state.

  • Anonymous February 1, 2012, 6:17 PM

    The Enlightenment, the intellectual phenomenon that began in Europe in the 18th century, held reason as the highest human attribute. In the heady days of the first scientific revolution, where geocentrism and other key elements of medieval cosmology were cast aside in favor of scientific observation and critical analysis, it was believed that humans could and would answer all questions and solve all problems through reason.

    In the 19th century, this morphed into optimism over industrial progress. Dazzling new inventions and discoveries each revolutionized the way that people lived: the telegraph, telephone, microbiology, locomotion, and the automobile, among many others. The 20th century brought about a new scientific revolution, even grander than what had come before: relativity and quantum theory, genetics, radio and television, computers. If a specific moment in time is to be chosen as the height of the faith in scientific progress, I might identify the the 1939 New York world’s fair and the peak of the technocracy movement.

    Somehow, in the latter half of the 20th century and into the present, faith in science seems to be coming off the rails. To be sure, we continue to enjoy rapid advancements in medicine, telecommunications, and other areas. But for one thing, it has become abundantly clear since World War II that reason has not and cannot banish the uglier aspects of human nature. Not only that, but there no longer seems to be the capacity to summon the resources for those scientific and engineering projects on which future human prosperity will depend: alternative energy, climate change mitigation, and space exploration. Beyond the highly disturbing mixture of nationalism and fundamentalism that infects both the US and much of the rest of the world, science has been pushed too far off the agenda. Those who want to see things get back on track will have their work cut out for them.

    • Anonymous February 1, 2012, 8:36 PM

      I don’t think faith is science is what is needed. Faith is generally the opposite of a scientific attitude to begin with. I might say the confidence we had in science has suffered. This probably has a number of causes. After the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan Einstein said something to the effect that this amounted to giving a psychopathic killer with a knife a machine gun instead. We have since 1945 come up with the power to destroy things on unprecedented scales, and by the 1960s it was clear we are damaging or degrading the planet as well. Unfortunately the news on this front grows at a rate faster than any efforts we make to reverse or ameliorate them.

      As anyone knows who has been in a science degree, particularly at the graduate level, it is pretty clear that these university programs exist to provide newly minted graduates who will work on weapon systems, or work to derive new chemical compounds that are toxic, or … . There is a disillusioning sense about this, and it is a minority of people who pursue careers which avoid these situations. I knew a number of people who dropped out over a sense of despair over this.

      There is also what I call the “Nixon factor,” where his administration unfortunately distorted facts and told outright lies, from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate. I think this has set up a cynical attitude that turned the public’s opinion further away from government and in conjunction science as well. After the lunar program, in fact after Armstrong did his one small step, the public attitude appeared to shift then. Then through the 1970s there was a rise in religious interests and eventually a full shift to the political right and the religious right, with things like creationism. We have stuff being said politically which would make people in the 1950-60s period of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson blush.

      LC

  • Alexander Howlett February 1, 2012, 6:37 PM

    Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying – Arthur Clarke.

    Pepper2000, the SETI establishment could use a lot less Whiggish positivism for technological triumphalism and a lot more humanism.

    • Adam Fausey February 1, 2012, 7:01 PM

      Oh, I disagree. While I see your point about remembering humanity as a factor in scientific endeavors, I totally with Pepper that a lack of respect for science is to blame for the lion’s share of the world’s problems. Postmodernist relativism, as well as reactionary conservatism, tends to put more emphasis on opinion than on empirical fact. Science may hurt some feelings and step on some toes, but at least it represents the truest path to learning about the universe in which we live, and I believe that this gaining of knowledge is the truest meaning of the word “Progress.” Granted, our objectivity will often be clouded by our own cultures, but it can be overcome through emphasis on the value of reason itself.

      • Alexander Howlett February 1, 2012, 7:40 PM

        Adam, you’re endorsing exactly the kind of whigish positivism I’ve critiqued. You probably imagine that history is some kind of moralistic story about the inevitable progress of civilization towards modernity. I pity you. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3ifRA0Kj-8

        • Joost Fianen February 1, 2012, 8:44 PM

          Il love to think that with hard work and positive understanding we can progress our civization towards a modern (and human) future. Is there a other not terrifying alternative?

    • Torbjörn Larsson February 2, 2012, 8:07 PM

      Who said that this was about SETI? The astrophysical (planets) and astrobiological (biology) fields are highly excited by this field, and if you ask the latter ETI isn’t expected to be a common phenomena but observable life should be.

      We (I am a part time astrobiology student) are very disappointed!

      – “Two possibilities exist”. The problem is on the contrary that too many possibilities exist to pin down the answer to a simplistic yes/no observation. (How?)

      As an example, the natural migration out of a planetary system would likely not put planets as the common habitat but Oort cloud bodies. They would be SETI silent and have exceedingly slow migratory rates to boot. Good luck with your SETI claim on that.

      – Whiggish positivism? What does that even mean? Positivism is a philosophy, not science. But the requirement of a viable definition looks quite like the requirement for testing that is at the heart of modern science. So you could possibly observe that science _looks_ positivist (but is empirical).

      And it works! See how problematic your SETI claim (yes/no observation) is? That is because you didn’t put it in a “positivist” (testable) way.

  • Steve Nerlich February 1, 2012, 7:30 PM

    History gives us many reasons to doubt the sincerity of statements made by presidential candidates on campaign.

    At the end of the day as a citizen of a democracy, it’s all down to you rather than whoever happens to be in power at the time. Get out there and make the space program an issue, lobby the people in power and then vote for whoever supports the objectives you want.

    Educate the community, create a groundswell. Don’t hold your breath waiting for your elected officials to show leadership – it’s not generally what they are good at.

    • bruce_dorminey February 2, 2012, 12:32 AM

      Steve, thanks for your comment, but as you know, unfortunately, it’s the politicians who control the purse strings both here and in Australia. Of late, our Congress has passed many bills that the general public have vehemently opposed. Thus, politicians still wield great power. Finding one that believes in space is still worthwhile.

  • Anonymous February 1, 2012, 11:22 PM

    “Perhaps Gingrich is not the ideal messenger for…”

    It doesn’t really matter what goes in the rest of this sentence – it’s still equally true.

  • Anonymous February 2, 2012, 1:45 AM

    Great article, Bruce.

    I understand your sentiment toward Newt, though it’s hard not to remind myself of his questionable motives and starkly anti-scientific messages.

    Mitt simply made a sad attempt to discredit Newt by grossly exaggerating the cost of such a base. “Hundreds of billions of dollars.”

    Cheers

  • Todd Reece February 2, 2012, 2:05 PM

    Amazing. 3000 people get killed and that event is used as a bowling pin for every excuse for the lack of funding from climate research to finding extra-solar planets hundreds of light years away.

    Really? Is there no common sense anymore on this board?

    While NASA has always been the single source of optimism in the gov’t, it’s budget was maxed in 1966 at .5% of the nations GDP and the cost of a Saturn V launch was a inflation adjusted slap of $1billion. ROI at NASA and the space program is well known. However, NASA has been rife with budget problems just like any other gov’t entity.

    Bloat and corruption is to be expected.

    What else started in the 60’s? Free love, flower power, and every other special interest known to man, including LBJ’s famous Great Society.

    Yet we built up for the Vietnam War, and a horrendously yellow spined chicken effort with the Bay of Pigs.
    Point being there is that the USA had plenty of roaring cash back then to do as we pleased. Not anymore.

    But I digress from my main points.
    1) Space exploration of even the near system would require massive funding on a scale that would gag most people.
    2) The cost in human skeletal and muscular strength due to extended time in space are obstacles that have yet to be sufficiently overcome.
    3) Space is fracking BIG. It’s going to take 9 months for a 1-way trip to Mars, and LIGHT years (years spent traveling at the speed of light) to get anywhere else of import.
    Yeah, I’m thinking this should be ranked as a side business and not a main core occupation.

  • Anonymous February 2, 2012, 3:08 PM

    Dr. Marcy, the number of true believers (in SETI) is falling. Can you blame them? 41 years and nothing to show for the “great search”. Big science, big money demands results and SETI is currently the least results oriented project around. So let’s get real. Thousands of planets, 99.9 % of them not suitable for life. What if that one or two in the galaxy are hundreds or thousands of light years away? Where’s the chance for any meaningful contact? As a popular article stated, recently, we won’t be visiting them any time soon. How about any time ever? Let’s get real about SETI. We’ve been promised an epiphany if intelligent life is discovered. We’ve poured billions into the search. The return is nada. Except for those who earn their living from SETI, it’s hard to keep funding a failure. Lastly, if intelligent life is discovered around some nameless star half a galaxy away, will it really change life on Earth? Think hard, this is science we’re talking about, not science fiction. SETI has lost most if not all of its credibility.

    • Torbjörn Larsson February 2, 2012, 8:15 PM

      Who said that this was about SETI?

      The astrophysical (planets) and astrobiological (biology) fields are highly excited by this field, and if you ask the latter ETI isn’t expected to be a common phenomena but observable life should be.

      Of course the spectroscopic observation of an oxygen atmosphere on a habitable terrestrial will be a large deal! First, it is an age old cultural question: are we alone? Second, it will be very valuable to test and constrain theories of abiogenesis. We have many pathways for these, it would be helpful to pare them down to one or at least a few by this way.

      The same happens within the science of planetary system formation.

      This is not something we have to think hard about, because it is well known or often said. It is those that mistake astrobiology et cetera for the area of SETI that would need to think!

      Btw, we (I am a part time astrobiology student) are very disappointed by the high potential and currently small available resource of these areas. It is fallacious to claim that “return is nada” when the field is observably as fertile as it is. Kepler yielded much more exoplanets than it was hoped for and delivered exactly what was expected, a survey of the potential and constraints of a TFP.

  • Anonymous February 2, 2012, 3:58 PM

    Given the comments made by Speaker Gingrich and Mitt Romney, no space supporter should support, and definitely not vote, for Mitt Romney. God help us with a Commander-in-Chief that would fire everyone who disagrees with him.

  • Anonymous February 2, 2012, 4:02 PM

    The billion or so dollars wasted on Obama’s re-election could pay for most of either mission, and one day’s worth of war funding could pay for the other one…

  • Todd Reece February 2, 2012, 4:06 PM

    Now, I will say this. Sending probes to mine asteroids, perhaps even a specific free enterprise venture at mining various minerals off of asteroids and other Earth-enriching goals should be examined. Now that we’ve proven you can land probes and craft onto asteroids, and with the thoughts of actually landing men on one, we can perhaps envision when this might become feasible. Much like Oil sands weren’t feasible until a few years ago, this exercise will one day be fruitful.

    But to sit around a computer and ‘cast swords’ at the choices our nation has made, all the while ignoring the basic facts of the huge undertaking full-bore space exploration requires is illogical, unwise and not the least bit helpful. You want to send someone up? Do like Virgin and fund it yourself.

    This world is a dangerous place. We can all sit here and think that the $1b a day effort in Iraq and Af-stan has been a waste, but really, we’ll never know. The fact is TPTB (both dem and repub) both thought the wars were worth it. While we have people stuck in the 14th century and continually threaten certain world members primarily based on religious beliefs, there will be no great leap forward. That takes dominance, robust peace, roaring economy, and low cost energy. None of these factors are in place now.

    I’m a product of NASA-era. I saw the Apollo moon landings with their scratchy b/w transmissions. I was outside to see the remnants of SkyLab scorch the atmosphere… I saw Voyager 1 and 2… I saw Enterprise glide through the air after separating from a 747 (wtf???), I saw Columbia blast off gloriously…. I saw Challenger ‘touch the face of God”… I saw Endeavor…Discovery… I saw Columbia disintegrate….

    I’ve dreamed of what is waiting ‘out there’, but knowing full well the distances separating the planets and galaxies mean that finding out those answers by visiting those places is slim to none… not in my lifetime at least.

    I saw an article, I forget where, but one that stated that the advances brought on by WW2 amounted to leaps in excess of 5000 years. I don’t know how they could know that and they didn’t state why. But if that is the case, then its reasonable to expect that another advance like that is necessary for travel to star systems. But the likelihood of another advance such as that… within 100 years, is incredibly improbable.

    We HAVE to take care of business here first. We can plan, keep the fire stoked, perhaps robo-mine asteroids, but a full scale effort has to wait until other things are more settled.

  • Torbjörn Larsson February 2, 2012, 8:36 PM

    I have said it before here, but I guess it bears repeat: it is a false choice fallacy to claim resources in one area would automatically be better spent elsewhere. Most of the times we have the resources to do both and we would be best served to do both.

    While the wars certainly can be criticized, I have myself done that, the problem with the NASA budgets are internal and external system failures.

    Externally: to combine science and technology is one thing, to combine manned exploration and science exploration quite another. Manned exploration are usually separate research programs.

    Internally: ISS, JWST, Constellation, SLS, … The science labs are worth it, but so are TPFs. A little bit more spent there would go a long way.

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