Preposterous Universe

Monday, October 04, 2004
NASA abandoning astrophysics

One of the many benefits of being a member of the American Astronomical Society is automatic subscription to the AAS Newsletter, which is filled with such wonderful things that the current issue is not put online, so that only official members may read it. This month's issue contained a column by new AAS president Robert Kirshner, who talked about the new (as of this summer) NASA Mission Statement. Some of Kirshner's comments:
... it would be a mistake to lose sight of even bigger changes taking place at NASA. NASA's new focus on solar system exploration is expressed in their mission statement and a new set of "Level 0" requirements (even more fundamental than Level 1!) articulated by the NASA Executive Council. You can read them for yourself [here]. You might find it odd, as I did,that there is no mention of the kind of science that has proved so successful for NASA in exploring the universe beyond the solar system, with HST and smaller but fantastically important missions like WMAP. These basic requirements don't suggest that studying black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy, or even the assembly of galaxies at the dawn of time must be part of NASA's portfolio.


But these requirements are aimed quite sharply at something else: "extending human presence across the solar system and beyond." Many AAS members will see themselves as part of that presence, but having so much astronomy compressed into "and beyond" makes me wonder if the ground has not shifted beneath our feet. The whole elaborate process of Decadal reports, followed by careful working out of roadmaps with lots of community input through a vigorous advisory mechanism has been a good thing for the astronomical community, and a good thing for NASA. This new change in direction doesn't seem to involve any of those sources of wise counsel. I think we should pay attention to this, talk to our colleagues at NASA, and try to understand what is happening. We live in interesting times.
Couldn't have said it better myself (and I have tried). It's worth taking a look at those "requirements" in the mission statement -- not a single reference to the universe outside the solar system. When I give colloquia, I like to say that the 1990's will go down in human history as the decade in which we figured out what the universe was made of, pinning down the cosmic inventory of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy. Those determinations were due in large part to observations by NASA missions of galaxies, supernovae, and the cosmic microwave background. Think that stuff is interesting? Hope you enjoyed it, since we might not get any more.

When Sean O'Keefe became the new NASA administrator, scientists were cautiously optimistic -- he was not a scientist himself, but had a reputation as a manager and a results-oriented kind of guy, and astrophysics was the one thing at NASA that consistently got great results (as opposed to, let's just say, the International Space Station). We were wrong. And as Kirshner says, there is a frustrating move away from a system of rigorous study and sensitivity to community input -- a move which, if nothing else, fits in well with the overarching philosophy of the current administration.

I'm not sure if it's too late to stop NASA from completely abandoning astrophysics. But any time you get the chance, make noise about it to people who matter. It would be a shame if this decade went down in human history as the one in which we stopped caring about what the universe is made of.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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