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Astronomy Is Cheap, Too

Posted by Casey Dreier

17-08-2012 11:45 CDT

Topics: astronomy

There was upsetting news today, as the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences released a report that recommended divesting from several highly successful radio telescopes (PDF here, 4.3 MB).

A VLBA radio telescope slated for divestment

Stevens F. Johnson

A VLBA radio telescope slated for divestment

These include the world's largest maneuverable radio telescope in Green Bank, the Very Long Baseline Array, spread out over six thousand miles, and several telescopes at the Kitt Peak Observatory, including McMath-Pierce solar telescope, the largest of its kind in the world.

Like almost all of the science-focused agencies, the NSF is facing severe budget pressure in the upcoming years. The report makes several hard choices based on projected funding. It prioritizes new telescopes and individual research grants and small-project funding, which makes sense if you think about that as the best way it can support overall research.

Still, this is heartbreaking. I first used VLBA data back when I was an undergraduate, and remember when the GBT telescope came online to great fanfare. I remember very distinctly going to visit the VLBA telescope pictured above in North Liberty, IA, as a child and being awestruck with the size of it.

It's not clear yet if these telescopes will close down without the money provided by the NSF. NASA funds some of these, and there may be other institutions who will step in to help. Still, this represents a major challenge to each one of these sites.

Oh, but the best part. All of these divestments from these telescopes? The ones that the NSF can no longer afford?

20 million dollars.

That's it. My previous posts about Curiosity being cheap are nothing compared to the chump change needed to continue funding these. There's a gnawing, slow decline of our ability to support science in this country. The fact that major telescopes in their prime of their operating existence can be defunded for the lack of a few million dollars is yet another example.

Maybe we should ask Paul Allen? With half of his fortune he could fund these telescopes for another 350 years or so.

See other posts from August 2012


Or read more blog entries about: astronomy


James: 08/17/2012 12:12 CDT

All these austerity programs have been a total failure in Europe and come from a complete lack of understanding of last 50+ years of economic history and the government's role in supporting growth.

Julie: 08/17/2012 03:23 CDT

Casey, do you have any suggestions for the public on how we can advocate for the continued funding of these telescopes, either to NSF or other organizations? Thank you.

Zorbonian: 08/17/2012 03:56 CDT

Well, it's interesting to see that more people are realizing that there is a certain insidiousness at work here. There are elements in our government that are doing all they can to stop public funding of ALL of these types of projects (except for the military ones, of course), and, in effect, turn us into the type of country where there will not be any public funding for anything - street lights, National Parks, etc. They will say that it’s not really a “conspiracy,” and people will believe them because what they are doing is relatively slow and very calculated. They have some setbacks, but they don’t let those get them down. They are very determined to change the U.S. - and not for the better - and are very patiently accomplishing this, through bill by bill that are being passed in our government, and at strategic times when they feel most people are not paying attention, and through Propositions on ballots worded in such a way as to fool Mr. and Ms. Average. I have been in the countries that are the types of places this one is in danger of becoming, and they are not pretty, and they are not safe. They are places where everything is "for profit", and the rivers and lakes are polluted, and things such as clean drinking water is only for the rich - have you noticed the proliferation of [low quality] for profit technical schools and such here in recent years? I see 2 other people in this thread (besides myself) who have an understanding of what is going on, but are we representative of the general public? Well, we shall see in a few months if Mr. and Ms. Average are fooled once again!

James: 08/17/2012 05:24 CDT

I would hope that the internet could be a medium in which Mr. and Ms. Average could get the understanding of what is going on, if the voices of common sense are loud enough. Some more links:

fthurber: 08/18/2012 08:46 CDT

This is discouraging considering that the Rocket To Nowhere (SLS) got increased funding. SLS is pure pork for Houston politicians at the expense of science. It is discouraging that Bill Nye has endorsed Obama; this is sending the wrong message.

Leonidas: 08/18/2012 02:49 CDT

Before reading the news about this, I would consider Zorbonian's above comments over-reacting. But they're definitely right on the spot! Bill Nye (master of understatement!) said in an interview some time ago, that "we have a small anti-science theme going on in the US, and that's not good". I couldn't beleive how right he was! Neil de Grasse Tyson has spoken so vocally about the dangers of scientific illiteracy, and of not advancing a frontier, describing the consequences of it, as a long sad slide back to the caves, and that slide is so smooth that you don't even notice it, until you wake up one morning and you're back in the cave! He also pointed out correctly that the US faces a grave danger because of this. I couldn't imagine how imminent this danger seems to be...

Leonidas: 08/18/2012 02:59 CDT

@James: about the internet, being such a medium, from my perspective, yes and no. The net seems so full of propaganda,misinformation and stupidity some times, that's chocking. Of course there are pleny of good, objective sources of information, like a light in the dark, but I don't know if Mr. and Mrs. Average have the time and energy to do the searching it requires to find them and the critical-thinking skills it requires to understand the difference between them. It's so much easy and not time-consuming to just get fed on the soundbytes and propaganda.

Zorbonian: 08/18/2012 04:22 CDT

fthurber, I have two questions for you: Which party wants to keep taxes for the rich the way they are, or lower, and which party wants to raise taxes for the rich? Which multi-billionaire said that it is disgraceful that he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary? Though I don't care much for one of his companies - Geico (horror stories) - I admire the man very much for admitting this and for his input on raising taxes for the rich. Fthurber, I thought you had a better understanding of where the money to fund things such as space science comes from: TAXES!!! Now, I am not a big fan of either of the 2 major parties, but of the 2, the one that is trying to do more for the American people - not the 1 percent, mind you, the American people as a whole - is the current administration. Why is President Obama doing this SLS funding? Probably for the same reason that there are other things he agrees to that are not in the best interest of the American people: to pacify the other party so that he can get some more significant measures passed. The other party seems determined to turn everything into for-profit ventures. Don't be fooled by "trickle-down" economics: It-does-not-work!! It is a fallacy perpetrated by the rich, for the rich, and they are hoping that Mr. and Mrs. Average buy into it. When they can no longer walk down the street because the streetlights don't work, because the numbers of homeless has increased exponentially, because there is garbage that has not been collected, then they will see that it was the wrong path to take, but it will be too late by then, and as a nation we might not recover. Btw, just for clarification, the American public was fooled in 2000 and 2004.

Zorbonian: 08/18/2012 04:51 CDT

I have been fooled as well. I used the term “raise taxes for the rich,” which is incorrect, but they have me saying it. It IS NOT raising taxes for the rich: it is bringing the tax rate for the rich up to the level at which the middle class ALREADY pays taxes. If we did that, the country would be out of debt in no time! Until this happens, the wealth will only continue to be hoarded by the rich.

fthurber: 08/18/2012 09:44 CDT

Bill Nye has to wear two hats. One is as an advocate of science education; it is understandable that he endorsed Obama. However as head of the Planetary Society he should not endorse Obama because he was (ultimately) responsible for gutting planetary sciences. There are a lot of issues concerning Obama and Romney that do not belong in this discussion so I am not going to argue taxes etc. The issue is funding for planetary missions; Obama chose to increase (albeit not by much) funding for SLS while gutting planetary science. Either he does not understand science or he yielded to Houston politics. In any case the head of the Planetary Society should NOT be endorsing him. I am not saying the Nye endorse Romney (who has no track record with planetary science funding)...just that he should not endorse Obama.

Zorbonian: 08/19/2012 12:57 CDT

I see what you mean, and you make some good points, and as head of the PTS, perhaps he should remain neutral. But it may also be good to let people know more about which direction we will probably be headed if we choose the alternative by taking a stand. I don't see space science very high on the opposition's list when they want to outsource everything anyway. Regarding the SLS, I have felt that it is a bit outdated now, and believe that it is about time we take construction (actually, more like assembly) to space - assembly of components. I think Paul Allen has a great idea - based on Scaled Composites' high altitude launch method, to launch rockets to take people or payload to space. We could make the modular components here, then assemble them in space. With Paul Allen's method, it would be considerably cheaper fuel-wise and infrastructure-wise (would not need this huge ground launch system in place), and with a couple of these very large planes, weather would not be as much of a factor because the actual launch would take place above the weather formations. Additionally, there could be multiple launches within one day. (google stratolaunch systems) On another note, here is a link to an article that feels NASA should be revamped, and ultimately, that draconian budget cuts might be good for these types of agencies because it cuts out the pork, and they make some good points.

Leonidas: 08/20/2012 06:06 CDT

I'm just speculating here, but maybe a major reason for Bill Nye endorsing Obama, is the anti-science, pro-religion theme and rhetoric used by the Republican party, which is a troubling thing anyway.

Zorbonian: 08/21/2012 03:54 CDT

Good point - very troubling, indeed! When did we get this way, and how did we get so far off course? Why does religion keep on taking center stage? But what really bothers me is the number of people who really don't seem to have a clue about what is really going on, and about how the divide between the rich and poor will just get wider if the Republicans have their way. People are too easily fooled by the tricky wording and promises, and the problem is that they vote! It probably is a good idea for a high-profile person in the science community like Bill Nye to take a position on this. I hope we can get Warp drive going pretty soon, because I want to go to a planet without religion(s).

Leonidas: 08/22/2012 12:58 CDT

@Zorbonian: I agree with you completely! I'm not an American and I'm not seeing this from any partisan bias. I live in Greece (which is not at all better when it comes to the intermix of religion and the state), and I read what's happening in the US and I try to observe things objectivly. I'm not in much favor of Obama either, cause even though his rhetoric was so about advancing science and technology, he didn't gave any serious commitment to space exploration (manned or unmanned), besides vauge promises about "advancing science" and "someday in 20 years we'll reach Mars." I could also make these promises and I'm not a politician. I'm a space enthousiast since early childhood, and in the year 1990, I remember that Mars was also 20 years into the future back then! But the recent campaign of the Republican party I find so appalling when it comes to matters of science and technology. I don't have a problem with people that are into religion. People are free to beleive whatever they want, but when religion goes in the way of scientific literacy and advancement, then I have a problem. The latest offender was the NSF's recent report that some iconic astronomical facilities in the US be scrapped, when all it takes to fund these observatories is $20 million! We start with space exploration cuts, then we go to astronomy research cuts, then... what? The US is on a dangerous path right now concerning this, and is playing with fire. I fear the worst.

Leonidas: 08/22/2012 01:00 CDT

And yes you're absolutely right, the worst thing isn't the politics that much. Its that as you say, "People are too easily fooled by the tricky wording and promises, and the problem is that they vote!". That's why I fear the worse.

Zorbonian: 08/25/2012 12:33 CDT

Yesterday someone said to me "TGIF". And it got me thinking about for which it is an acronym. It's about time we change it to "TTGPIF" - "Thank the god (lowercase "g") particles it's Friday." ;-)

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