“I honestly think the wheels are coming off our picture of the way the
universe works at the moment. We don't know what 96% of the universe
is made of – that tells us that we don't understand something
--Professor Brian Cox
Last time, we talked about the human space flight program. Now we
need to discuss a much more serious issue.
The House of Representatives appropriations committee on Commerce,
Justice, and Science has removed the £1.9 billion from the NASA budget
for 2012. Gone. Not redirected in to the Senate Launch System, or
too pay for new pork barrels. Of this £1.9 billion, about one quarter
was to pay for the James Webb Space Telescope.
Professor Cox, a sort of cross between Carl Sagan and Buckaroo Bonsai
(yes, he really was in a pop band), is right, as we have learned more
about the universe, it turns out that we understand far less – far
less than we thought we did, and almost nothing about what the vast
majority of it actually is.
The House of Representatives seems to be determined to see to it that
it stays that way.
The former name of the James Webb Telescope, The Next Generation Space
Telescope, gives a clue as to what it really represents. This
telescope will have over 100x the resolution of the Hubble Space
Telescope, and as it is an infrared telescope, it will be able to see
though the dust clouds that surround stellar nurseries to see stars
forming. More than that, Webb will be able to see circumstellar disks
that form planets and into the cores of galaxies.
The telescope will be able to detect extra solar planets, directly,
instead of by inference. We will be able to detect what is in the
atmospheres of these planets. The possibility exists of detecting
life, or the conditions required for life, on planets around other
It will be able to see farther out, and farther back in time, than any
other telescope. Perhaps to actually see how the first stars and
galaxies formed. The folks working on this are talking about *first
light*, and they are serious.
There is far too much detail about what this instrument can achieve,
for me to list here. See for yourself. There is a nearly 600 page
The committee wants to cancel this project, even as it nears
completion, because it has been poorly managed and is over budget.
This is true. To put it in context, however, the money for the
telescope for 2012, perhaps $450 million, is an insignificant amount
of money by government standards. The US government spends $6.5
million per *minute*. We are talking about enough money to run the
government for a little over an hour.
My friends, it is worth 69 minutes of your money to find the secrets
of the universe. And, as a perverse consequence of the cost over
runs, and the current economic climate, there are no other missions,
and there won’t be any for a long time. All of the space agency’s
funding will now go to build the SLS. If this cancelation stands, we
will not find these things out.
The question is, ladies and gentlemen, do you care? Do you want to
know? Do you have the curiosity to know about the universe around
you? You are still reading, so I know you do! A man doesn’t walk
onto the lot unless he wants to buy, and he doesn’t read a science
fiction website unless he cares about science, and just plain old
finding out stuff.
This isn’t about maybe going to Mars in thirty years or so. Or maybe
visiting a comet, or an asteroid, or even spending $100 billion on the
longest game of orbital flag pole sitting in history. This is about
going further than anyone has ever gone, in time and in distance, now.
It is the closest you and I will get, in our lifetimes, of finding
out what is really going on. I guarantee it.
And you can make a difference. You can make this happen. If enough
people write letters to their Congressmen, if enough of you make a
fuss, make that phone call, turn up at their office, and demand that
your tax money is spent for something truly useful, instead of being
pissed away, the funding will be restored. In the scheme of things,
it’s a bargain.
Finding out what’s out there is what life is all about. You can make
it happen, or you can sit in your lazy boy and watch Friends. The
characters are vapid. It isn’t worth your time. This is!
The choice is yours.