The United States is a strong leader in astronomy, but that leadership is in peril if the proposed cuts to NASA in the current White House budget take effect.
If Congress approves these cuts, NASA’s astrophysics budget would be the lowest in more than a decade, if you adjust for inflation. This sends the message to the world that the U.S. is no longer capable of leading humanity’s “civilization scale” missions.
This cannot and should not happen.
Through NASA, we have led scientific discoveries that have changed the very nature of how humanity sees itself in the cosmos. This has an untold impact to the country and in Texas — NASA is partly the namesake of the world champion Houston Astros. NASA’s space telescopes have shown us the beginnings of the universe, have identified galaxies in their infancy, and are on the path to finding extrasolar planets potentially capable of supporting life.
These discoveries shape our civilization and inspire generations. This drives significant talent into STEM-related fields, fuels innovation and improves the economy in Texas and beyond, helping our nation lead the world’s technological advancement. Astrophysics itself has even led to new technologies we use every day, such as the digital cameras in cellphones and the technology necessary to connect to Wi-Fi.
Next year, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will peer into the distant reaches of the universe and into the atmospheres of planets around other stars. The telescope is a reality because of priorities established by the Decadal Survey process, spearheaded by the National Academy of Sciences. Every 10 years, the Decadal Survey identifies the collective vision of U.S. astrophysics.
This results in a list of ranked priorities, which federal agencies have used to decide on space missions for more than 50 years. This frequent exploration of our priorities — and collaboration between scientists and NASA — is a major factor why we remain the world leader in space-based astrophysics.
The next NASA flagship mission is the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope, or WFIRST, and astronomers in Texas are playing key roles in the design and scientific planning for this future mission.
WFIRST’s mirror is similar to Hubble’s, but it has a more powerful camera and optics, allowing it to image simultaneously an area of the sky 100 times larger. This will enable WFIRST to map 1 billion galaxies with Hubble-quality imaging.
The telescope will decipher the nature of dark energy, the mysterious force causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate and one of the outstanding astrophysical questions of our time. WFIRST will also discover enormous numbers of distant galaxies at the edge of time, and these will be targets for the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the world’s largest when it comes on line in Chile in 2023, and in which several universities in Texas have invested heavily.
WFIRST will directly image and characterize exoplanets, yielding more targets for the Giant Magellan Telescope to explore. The loss of WFIRST would significantly hamper Texas science.
The National Academy of Sciences identified WFIRST as the highest priority in the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey and again in the 2016 midterm assessment. But all of this could be lost if the budget cuts pass. The cuts will cancel WFIRST, even though it is on schedule and budget-capped.
This loss would be devastating to America’s leadership in space-based astronomy. By overruling the recommendations of expert scientists, the federal government will strike at the roots of how science proceeds in this country, weakening the decadal survey process.
International would-be partners in WFIRST, including the European Space Agency and Japan, would see the role of the U.S. diminish, threatening future partnerships in space. Other countries would fill the void in leadership, particularly China, which is investing heavily in space science, causing a “brain drain” of talent from Texas and the U.S. to elsewhere.
The modest investment by our past policymakers in astrophysics has pushed us closer to understanding the universe, advancing science and deepening our cosmological spiritual connection. At the very least, Congress should restore NASA’s astrophysics funding to past levels. Failing to do so would weaken our astrophysics leadership to a point from which it would take decades to recover.
Steven Finkelstein is an associate professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin.
Casey Papovich is the Marsha L. ’69 And Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Chair in Experimental Physics and a professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, and The Eagle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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