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Will human eyes ever gaze this way again?

This morning, I watched with tears in my eyes as the last flight of the space shuttle pierced the clouds above Cape Canaveral.  After the joy of watching four human beings rise above the atmosphere carried by little more than a few thousand tonnes of metal, plastic, and ceramic safely and in less time than it takes me to drive to work, I started to look back upon a week that has been, if I may put it bluntly, disastrous for NASA, and for the American space effort.

Though the launch of STS-135 and the final flight of Atlantis has gone without incident, it still has cast a shadow upon the future prospects for the American space program the likes of which has not been seen since the loss of the Challenger in 1986.  For the first time in my lifetime, NASA will not be launching humans into space.  While I am brimming with excitement at the prospects of a vibrant commercial space industry, the fact remains that no company has yet launched even a test flight bearing human cargo (and though Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne did technically reach space, I don’t consider it in the same game as something like SpaceX’s Dragon. It is not even within the realm of possibility that it could ever orbit the planet, or do much more than entertain the hyper-rich).  For now, the only player in the game is Russia.  This raises the question, if not human space exploration, what is NASA’s goals for the foreseeable future?

The issue of human space flight has often been characterized by the dichotomy between doing “real science” and doing “human exploration”.  I am sympathetic to the arguments proponents of both sides make.  Surely, with the end of the Shuttle program, this means that NASA will become a much more powerful science and research power?  If only it were so simple.  Unfortunately, this week brought with it more bad news.  The US House Appropriations bill was released, and it is a veritable bloodbath for science funding.  Among the cuts, the James Webb Space Telescope program will be canceled.  You may have heard the JWST described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but that really sells it short.  The JWST is really the successor to the entire Great Observatories program, the keystone of NASA’s space astronomy projects.  Because the JWST will be placed at the L2 point, nearly 4 times more distant than the moon, it will be able to observe the sky with unprecedented noise levels, uninterrupted.  It will be the largest optical instrument ever placed in space, and it will observe at wavelengths our atmosphere is completely opaque to.  There simply is no substitute for doing the kind of science JWST will do.  And what kind of science might that be?  Why, the most important tasks in nearly all of the major fields of astronomy.  It will be able to observe the warm gas coalescing around stars to view planet formation as it happens, allowing us to answer the questions that have been raised by the dozens of new solar systems we have discovered in the past 10 years.  It will also be able to observe the highly redshifted light from galaxies 13.3 billion years in the past, when the universe was younger than tetrapod life on earth is old.  This means it will allow us to not only see the first generations of stars and galaxies, but also see their very formation. JWST is not merely a toy or a whim.  It is quite simply the most powerful tool optical astronomers will have had available to them in history.  And all to save the amount of money that the Americans spend on air conditioning their troops in Iraq for a week.  I’ll avoid turning this post too much into a political rant, as the variety of wondrous things we could do for humanity with a fraction of the wealth, life, and effort that is wasted in the petty, murderous squabbling we euphemize as “war” is nearly limitless.

What do we have to look forward to from a seemingly crippled NASA?  I feel I ought to leave you, dear reader, with at least one shaft of light to pierce these steely clouds.  One program still on target is the Curiosity Mars rover.  NASA has had a huge success with its Mars rovers, and the  story of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity is an inspiration to us all.  Both have been among the greatest success stories in the history of space exploration, with Opportunity operating for 30 times longer than its expected lifetime, and still working to deliver new insight about the red planet.  While Curiosity will not be able to have quite the same longevity, that sacrifice is well paid for in what we get in return.  Curiosity will be powered by a radiothermal isotope generator, a kind of passive nuclear power plant.  By generating electricity from the waste heat of decaying plutonium, Curiosity will produce more than 4 times the energy that the MERs produced each day.  This will allow it to operate day and night, and power much more watt-hungry instruments.  One of these instruments is the first laser spectroscope ever used on another planet, vaporising rocks and examining the composition of the minerals optically.  Curiosity will be the largest rover ever sent to another world, weighing in at 900 kg.  I’m hopeful the weight of data it produces will surpass its mere mass.

Where does this leave us?  I’m afraid in the most uncomfortable position people can be put in: one of uncertainty.  NASA looks like it may be down for the count, at least for the next few years.  But the prospect of commercial space flight, and of the missions that will survive budget cuts, do offer us more than just a glimmer of hope.  Let’s hope that this is simply a case of things getting worse before they get better.