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American Space Research: An Also-Ran?

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You can hear the sounds of gnashing teeth and wringing hands. The Space Shuttle is loping towards the sunset, leaving the United States without its own means for putting people in orbit for the first time in a half-century. And the James Webb Space Telescope, the anointed successor to the Hubble, is apparently being marched to the gallows by a Congress unwilling to feed its growing maw for money.

For a generation, this country led the way in both space exploration and astronomy. So it's clearly a wrench to see America -- whose cultural soul was forged by frontier heroes -- giving up the final frontier.

You've read the opinions and you've heard the arguments. The Shuttle's functions can be replaced by private-sector rocketry, so the current dependency on Russian launch vehicles is nothing more than a hiatus, a pause while we shift gears. This assessment, although possibly tainted with Pollyannaish optimism, seems fair.

But the threat to the Webb telescope is more menacing. "Bad move" sums up the analysis of those who argue that forsaking this major observatory will make the U.S. an also-ran in astronomical research.

Understand: the JWST is not merely a souped-up Hubble. It's a different instrument that can truly look where no telescope has ever been able to look before, far beyond the limits of Hubble -- to probe an epoch when the universe was dark. Not dark the way the sky appears on a clear night in the country, but scary, brutally dark... like a cave when your headlamp fails.

The Big Bang was not dark, of course. But the scorching fireball that marked the birth of the cosmos cooled quickly. After only a few hundred thousand years, the very early universe resembled its description in Genesis: it was a dark, formless void.

It stayed this way for hundreds of millions of years -- unseen and unseeable -- until the coming together of clumps of atoms finally spawned the first stars -- enormous boiling nuclear fires, hundreds of times the size of the Sun, and a million times brighter. The cosmos was pierced by pinpoints of light, and has remained so ever since.

The JWST, which unlike Hubble can make images in the infrared, could espy this initial burgeoning of stars and their homes -- the earliest galaxies. It would fill in a major, missing puzzle piece in the history of our universe.

But given that the current economic climate is stormier than Antarctic seas, should we really be spending money on this type of exploratory science? After all, will it really benefit the job market or the balance of payments to better know how the cosmos came into being?

Not directly. But let's try not to be myopic. Understanding the dark ages of the universe may seem both esoteric and useless, but that would be an assessment worthy of a Philistine. The benefit of acquiring such knowledge is both long-term and significant. Despite the expense, this is an investment that Congress should make.

Why? I could try convincing you with the usual right thinking. For example, I might note that NASA research is one of the most lucrative ways your government can spend money, typically returning ten dollars to the private economy for every dollar invested. And yes, I could resort to ever-popular comparisons with other federal expenditures, and point out, yet again, how NASA's annual budget is the cost of one month of fighting in the Afghan desert. You've heard such arguments many times.

But try this: exploration and new knowledge are singular hallmarks of our species. They are our finest accomplishments. When we sacrifice them in the name of immediate needs -- a tactic that sounds humane -- we, in fact, give up an essential aspect of our humanity.

No, America doesn't have to build this instrument. We can let others take the lead in breeching the frontier. That's often justified. But not always, and not habitually. Being an "also ran" a few times too often makes you a loser. Edward Gibbon noted that the fundamental cause for the fall of the Roman Empire wasn't aggressive barbarians or lead in the dinnerware. It was neglect. Those things we don't do, frequently affect history more than those we do.

And yes, funding the Webb telescope will require more money for NASA. Not so much for the telescope itself, but to avoid strip-mining all the other research sponsored by this agency. But just as Cosimo II was right to fund Galileo and Prince Lichnowsky was justified in supporting Beethoven, we should bequeath to our children an instrument that can uncover some of the greatest secrets nature has. Difficult? Of course. But as Edward R. Murrow said, "difficulty is the one excuse that history never accepts."

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