Before you do anything else today you have to watch this 3-minute video by our friends at NASA Goddard showing Venus transiting the Sun. It’s not only super-cool and gee-whizzical, it’s a great illustration of the way the universe — or, in this case, the sun — presents itself differently in different wavelengths. There’s no single way that something “looks.” The same object changes personality depending on the wavelength chosen for observation. You’ve got the fiery sun, the chilled-out sun, the turbulent sun, the angry sun, the melancholic sun, the bubbly sun, the too-cool-for-school sun. And so on. the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken, as Dylan once put it.
And then there’s the pinball Venus passing across the face of it, utterly featureless. I may just watch this video all day.
Or someone Bradburyesque.
Someone known to the public, and beloved like Bradbury. Someone who represents the American people at our aspirational, scientific, imaginative best. (I could make a plausible case for Carl Sagan for the way he explained science and space to the general public.)
The fact that the military (and yes, NRO answers to the Pentagon as well as to the DNI) has given NASA two spare Hubbles has given the space agency a great opportunity, but it’s a tricky situation for political and budgetary reasons. The good news is that NASA has two mint-condition space telescopes, each with 2.4-meter mirrors, just like Hubble. They’re actually better than Hubble, having been built about 10 years ago (Hubble was built in the 1980s), and with much bigger fields of view. What NASA doesn’t have is the money to launch even one of them until about 2024 at the earliest. They will remain parked for the time being in the facility in Rochester.
It’s all about money. The space science budget has been crushed by the costs of the James Webb Space Telescope; NASA has done itself no favors by letting the Webb become a nearly $9 billion instrument that’s 52 months past schedule. The agency bosses realize that they need to regain credibility with the bean-counters. It’s not a good time to go to Congress and say, hey, can you spare another billion dollars for a space telescope project?
So here’s where you cut a deal with the public. You remember all those schoolkids who donated their lunch money to help fund one more repair mission to the Hubble? You go back to ‘em. You go straight to the fourth graders. They’re a very persuasive bunch. If they donate their lunch money to the Bieber Space Telescope you could easily get this thing in orbit by 2020.
Here’s my point: Public opinion matters. And the public likes space astronomy — a lot.
So you want to leverage that. Don’t fight it. “Public relations” isn’t a dirty phrase.
Here’s a passage from a piece Dwayne Day wrote in 2005 in the journal Spaceflight:
“Many astronomers will acknowledge that Hubble has achieved amazing things, but also add that in some ways its scientific value was inflated, its image polished by an efficient public relations organisation that knew the value of pretty photographs. But there was no denying a simple fact: after several years as a symbol of all tha was wrong with NASA [because of the flaw in the mirror, necessitating the 1993 fix], Hubble evolved into a symbol of the best that the agency could achieve. Hubble was famous and beloved.”
So maybe you could call this new space telescope the Hubble Space Telescope II.
Son of Hubble.
The Hubble Double! [This is why they pay me the big bucks.]
I should note that, traditionally, telescopes are named after astronomers. Hubble, Spitzer, Wilkinson, Chandra — for Chandrasekaran. But the Webb is named after the Apollo-era NASA administrator. So there are no hard and fast rules here.
Maybe it should be called the People’s Telescope.
Another important point is that there’s something nice about the idea of a telescope designed to look down being turned around to look up.
NRO-1 and NRO-2 were designed to be spy satellites. They’re KH-11 Kennan telescopes originally developed in the 1970s when we were still worried about how many divisions the Soviets had.
So this is a swords-into-ploughshares moment.
A grassroots campaign could also leverage public interest in optical astronomy — the kind of pretty-picture astronomy that made the Hubble the most beloved scientific instrument of our time. Serious scientists might flinch at the thought of a “People’s Telescope,” but it wouldn’t hurt to get the general public on board as much as possible for the next wave of space astronomy. The highest priority, WFIRST, has been on hold because of the lack of NASA funds. One of these NRO telescopes can essentially become WFIRST — if there’s money.
The scientific community does a great job defining its priorities in astronomy and astrophysics. Two years ago the National Research Council produced the latest decadal survey of scientific objectives, “New Worlds, New Horizons.” It’s worth a read even though none of this will be on the test.
Now the scientists need to get ordinary people to say yes, that’s what we ought to do and we want to support that. The people united can never be defeated.