Opinion: Looking Backward

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Imagine a grain of salt held at arm’s length against the blackest patch of night sky you can find. From Sept. 24, 2003, to Jan. 16, 2004, the Hubble Space Telescope’s 8-foot mirror was pointed at that tiny square of sky. For 114 days, Hubble stared into the blackness finding, not darkness, but ten thousand galaxies — each consisting of hundreds of billions stars.

Hubble took thousands of breathtaking pictures, from the birthplace of the stars, to clouds of superheated iron ten times the size of our entire solar system. The mind cannot help but boggle.

The Hubble Telescope captures a multitude of galaxies (Hubblesite.org)

But, Hubble is a machine, and all machines break down eventually. Hubble has been taking photos for 21 years. It has had five servicing missions.  It is time for the baton to be passed. Unfortunately, there might not be an available successor.

CU is a very space-oriented school. Since 1949, CU has produced 18 astronauts with a total of 48 shuttle flights between them. Our own LASP observatory, located just half a mile from campus, is the most experienced university-based space research facility in the world.  It’s also the only one with instruments which have visited every planet in the solar system —including the recent Juno mission to Jupiter and the Messenger probe that is in orbit around Mercury right now. Lastly, no other public university in the world has received more funding from NASA.

The successor to Hubble was supposed to be the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST is bigger and more powerful than Hubble. JWST is capable of seeing back in time, before the stars existed, to the amorphous clouds. It is, quite simply, the best observational tool into the origins of the universe that mankind has yet created.

But NASA’s new budget has grounded the JWST entirely, mainly because it’s taken longer and costs more than expected. The cost estimates for the JWST have risen from $1.6 billion to $8.3 billion and the launch date has been pushed back nearly ten years.

Of all the government projects that go over-budget, shouldn’t we expect it from the most innovative? The JWST’s 21-foot folding mirror, the mechanics that unfold it, and the software that calibrates it, are all completely novel.  Almost every aspect of this project is so ambitious that we’re basically starting from scratch.

Part of the problem is that the public has no idea what NASA spends. A 2007 survey by Dittmar Associates found that the public thinks 24 percent of our national budget goes to NASA. In reality, the number is about half of one percent — and this telescope will cost roughly a third of that.

Perhaps it is not a matter of a funding shortage, but rather that of non-scientific national priorities. We are currently spending $2.6 billion per week on overseas military actions.  A year of those wars costs more than the entire 14-year Apollo program.  And, the bank bailout in 2008 cost more than NASA’s entire 50-year running budget.

It’s tempting to question the importance — not to mention financial motivation —for taking pictures of the sky when there are more urgent problems to be addressed.  But, even if the JWST doesn’t grant immediate returns, isn’t inspiration worth something?  Isn’t knowledge worth pursuing?  We, as a nation, are focused on short-term, bottom-line thinking and it’s going to catch up with us.

We need to keep fostering innovation and pursuing knowledge, or the next generation will have nothing to strive for but to be the next hedge fund manager. We cannot remain earthbound and static forever. If we don’t keep pushing science, there will come a time when this country has nothing left to offer the world.

There is a magnificent and awe-inspiring universe out there, but we’ll never see it if we don’t go outside and look up.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Angus Bohanon at Angus.bohanon@colorado.edu.

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