Astronomy today is impossible without giant billion-dollar space projects. To study, say, gamma-ray bursts — the supremely energetic deaths of giants stars and merged neutron stars — an astronomer would take data mostly from the Swift Observatory, a space telescope that was launched into space in 2004 at a bargain price of $250 million. Observations taken from space are clear of atmospheric turbulence, UV and X-ray absorption, and contaminating light sources — outside visible and radio wavelengths, ground-based operations can’t compete. Other astronomers rely on space telescopes like Hubble (cost to date: $10 billion) for incomparable visual band data, Spitzer ($720 million) and Kepler ($550 million) for exoplanet research, Fermi ($690 million) for supermassive black holes and pulsars, and a host of other instruments. Most of these have been launched by NASA or the European Space Agency. All are among the primary instruments of thousands of astronomers around the world and require tens of millions of dollars in yearly upkeep costs.
I do all this accounting to underscore the fact that modern astronomy is a global undertaking that requires a bunch of money to make new findings. Without such investments, astronomy cannot continue, and it would end up like American particle physics in 1993 when the Superconducting Super Collider — capable of detecting the long-theorized Higgs boson particle and even making inroads into the study of dark matter — was cancelled because of the expense, setting the scientific community as a whole back decades. Astronomy can claim few direct applications outside of its own discipline, so one cannot fall upon its concrete societal benefits to justify its expensive continuation. Rather, like art, astronomy’s greatest asset is the humbling perspective it provides, and non-astronomers deserve to have that perspective shared with them — think about where humanity might be today if Nicolas Copernicus hadn’t help us realize that the earth isn’t the center of the universe. But humility and perspective aren’t things that the government is interested in anymore, and that attitude threatens to dismantle some of our most promising astronomy projects.
W. H. Auden unwitting expressed our current predicament fifty-eight years ago, months before Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well That, for all they care, I can go to hell, But on earth indifference is the least We have to dread from man or beast.
The American government feels the same indifference towards the stars that they feel for us. Rather than finding art through astronomical observation, they’d prefer finding power through exploiting the space within our solar system. The public conception of space as a place primarily for extreme scientific experimentation is being replaced in the consciousness by vague, colonialist notions of space thanks to private space companies and government paranoia over space as an area of national security concern. Once you remove it from the realm of scientists and telescopes, “space” becomes, almost literally, a vacuum of a term, one that those with political and economic interests are seeking to fill. After thirty post-Soviet and post-Strategic Defense Initiative years, space is again being thought of as a place to control, militarize and exploit.
Two upcoming telescopes, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), illustrate that change. The result of an American public works partnership with Europe and Canada, JWST is nearly complete and is seen as the successor to groundbreaking Hubble telescope, though this is more in terms of its size than of its scientific goals. Whereas Hubble worked in the visible spectrum and allowed for incredibly precise insights about the expansion of the universe and dim galaxies, JWST will work in the infrared so that it can image the births of distant galaxies — which will further our understanding of the early history of existence, a period known as the Epoch of Reionization — and the panoply of dim stars with attendant exoplanets, potentially offering us clues as to where life might exist on other planets. It was initially to launch this year, but it has been delayed, for not the first time, until May 2020, while it busts through its $8 billion cap, five times its initial budget.
The Office of Management and Budget was happy to use JWST’s many delays and costs as a bludgeon to explain why WFIRST, the successor to JWST that will build on Hubble’s mission with drastically larger data sets and vastly more computing power, should be canned after its plans have been finalized. The OMB gave cost and higher priorities as its reasons for cancelling the project, saying that “developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the Administration.” The budget claimed that it would “redirect existing funds to other priorities of the science community,” but, of course, there is nothing in the budget about NASA besides the elimination of its office of education and several earth science missions. Thankfully, that proposed budget was only that, a proposal, and the rather generous budget that was passed that month included provisions for WFIRST.
WFIRST is in many ways a compromise between the mercenary mindset that the government prefers and the abstracted long-run goals of astronomy. Its budget has recently been tightened from $3.6 billion to $3.2 billion, and its designers were able to meet that budget by turning a science instrument into a proof-of-concept device instead. The reason that WFIRST is so much cheaper than JWST is due to the fact that the telescope unit itself was given to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office, the giant clandestine organization that sends most of our spy satellites into space. The telescope that WFIRST will use, which possess the resolution of Hubble but with a 100 times larger field of view, would otherwise have been used to surveil the Earth.
As with most big science, astronomy has had a long relationship with the military-industrial complex and its surveillance activities. The computationally complicated field of radio astronomy found its footing through radar experimentation. Gamma ray bursts were first discovered by the VELA military satellites that were monitoring for illegal Soviet nuclear tests. Most obviously, the Space Race was a proxy for an actual war between the Soviet Union and the United States which resulted in countless astronomical and engineering coups. In the past, the barrier between pure astronomy and “space” was permeable, and, like the field of creative writing, astronomy benefited greatly from the dubious partnership of national security and intellectual inquiry. WFIRST is a continuation of that same compromise in similarly difficult but economically stretched times. You can call it politically iffy, but in the past, big science has survived in a niche adjacent to the military-industrial complex rather than being swallowed by it. At least today the predicament is something we can critique and work toward repairing rather than an irrelevant problem for a dead scientific field.
Perhaps the government’s antipathy toward WFIRST is also because its mission is to explore the accelerating expansion of the universe with no promise of finding the nature of the dark energy that causes it, though the WFIRST team optimistically says otherwise. The mission is abstract and heady and furthering science without a comprehensible nugget of truth at the end of the rainbow. In the terms of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this is what the bulk of science looks like, working within a paradigm as we approach a new one. Its results are not flashy, much less concrete, and nevertheless will cost billions of dollars.
Instead of furthering the kind of shoe-leather, due-diligence science that we need, the Trump administration wants to push astronomy aside in order to militarize and privatize space. As with most things, President Trump doesn’t seem to understand what NASA does or what it even is, but he still wants to remake it with his patented brand of nonsense. In terms of goals, he thinks NASA spends too much developing rockets and wants them to focus on a jingoistic mission to go back to the Moon, but, in a wider view, he seems intent on stymieing its activities for the sake of the private sector. The agency’s new leader is, rather than a career scientist or engineer or astronaut, Jim Bridenstine, a third-term congressman with no scientific background who, among other things, is iffy on the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of climate change and has expressed a desire to exploit lunar resources for commercial gain (illegal under the as yet untested Outer Space Treaty that is enforced by international law). Though the space industry has come together to congratulate Bridenstine, the guy who will give them contracts, he seems to possess no vision for the program beyond crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, nor the expertise that could make him advocate for projects that the president wants to axe. In the long term — if there ever is a long term for this administration — it may be that the president will take the route he’s taken for other federal departments and just let them die on the vine while the private sector fills up the lucrative vacuum. That, or NASA will be entirely deprecated for his pipe dream of a “space force.”
Concurrently, Trump has revived the National Space Council, a consortium of business leaders (not scientists) last convened under the George H.W. Bush administration that will direct the vision of how we should be using space. The idea is that they could coordinate the various non-military agencies that work in space but without, you know, any scientific expertise in the field. Historically, this council hasn’t had much of an impact on policy because of how often its recommendations are ignored and how rarely it has convened. However, now that the private space industry actually exists outside of government contracts to aerospace companies, one can imagine that they would be able to direct government goals in space toward their own interests. The armed forces, for their part, are also interested in working with the private sector for the sake of military actions in space (also illegal under the Outer Space Treaty).
Though SpaceX and its ilk are businesses led by economic rather than scientific motives, my critique isn’t all just to denigrate them — after all, SpaceX just launched the NASA exoplanet finder TESS into space. These companies seem to genuinely recognize the value of government science. Additionally, private operation under public auspices isn’t new in this area; long-term, wide-ranging government contracts have always existed for rockets. The Atlas series, for instance, was developed by Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics in order to launch astronauts, satellites, and, later, missiles for the government.
What is concerning is the fact that the rockets themselves and what they are launching have been conflated. For instance, in the cabinet meeting on March 8 where he complained about the cost of NASA rockets, Trump called the three objects in front of him “rocket ships” even though one of them was clearly a satellite. The other two were the Atlas V and NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket planned to carry the long-haul spacecraft Orion. (Orion, by the way, is a perfect distillation of what only NASA can do: it is a project too specialized, long-term, and expensive for the private sector to invest in at this point but remains entirely necessary for the future of crewed space missions.) Even with all the shiny , he would only talk about SpaceX. It is as if we are back at the start of the Space Race, just trying to get things into orbit. There is no vision, only “Great Energy” and carpetbagging.
Of course, astronomy itself is not without political sin. Two bills are in process of being passed in the Hawaiian state legislature that will strip control of Mauna Kea, the premiere ground telescope site in the US and preferred site of the Thirty Meter Telescope, from the University of Hawaii and scale back the telescope presence on the mount, though this has more to do with conservation issues, mismanagement, and continued cultural insensitivity of the scientific community toward the Native population than a mercenary government mindset. In this case, it is the hubris that gives a positivist worldview precedence over indigenous ones — a practice embedded in the history of colonialism and science — that is keeping astronomy from happening. Astronomy also has cultural problems like sexual and racial harassment that exist throughout academia. (Allegations against the pioneering Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy were revealed barely a month after I arrived at the university as a graduate student.) But the government isn’t singling out astronomy because of its intersectional failings; it is doing so because astronomy is expensive and not easily applicable to its neoconservative mission.
That mission is one of ostentation and control over space, and it is one that ignores thousands of years of heavens-pondering evidence showing the universe’s passive disdain for humanity. Astronomy presents you with the piddling amount of power you have in a universe that is cold, nearly empty, incomprehensibly expanding, and in many ways unknowable. That is not something government officials like thinking about at night.