I dig space telescopes. The images they produce are moving on an emotional level and alter the way I see the world around me on an intellectual level. I like talking about them, thinking about the things they are telling us about that giant universe that’s out there, lurking above the thin blue haze which protects us from vacuum. In the news last week I see that NASA has recently been given not one, but TWO spare telescopes from one of the sixteen different US spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office. In fact, the mirrors on these things are the same size as Hubble’s mirror (7.9ft). NASA isn’t sure yet how they’ll use these super sweet mirrors. The ‘scopes will need to be kitted out with cameras, spectroscopes, electronics, etc and applied to a specific mission before they see any use, which they’re saying will probably happen in the 2020s.
But hold the phone here–these things were sitting in a warehouse collecting dust for who knows how long before some record keeper at the NRO said, gee, maybe someone could, like, use these? I recently donated some items to the local goodwill and all of it was stuff that had been sitting around forever; things I hadn’t interacted with in years and were essentially useless to me. The discoveries Hubble has made, the pictures it’s been taking, the realizations about the universe it’s spurred–you could argue that it’s the most important single instrument on the NASA inventory.
And yet, at just one of our 16 spy agencies, they’ve got TWO of these things, mothballed. The optics on these, still considered “state of the art” to NASA, are ostensibly so old and outdated to the spy crowd that they’re literally giving them away. This raises so many questions… It makes you wonder what else your tax dollars have bought, sitting unused in a giant warehouse somewhere. It makes you wonder what the heck the NRO is using now that is so much better, to the point that a Hubble-equivalent is considered worthless. It makes you wonder how much THAT cost (and when they’re giving one to NASA). It makes you wonder why publicly-funded NASA has to struggle and languish and put a hundred other amazing missions on the chopping block in order to make their James Webb Space Telescope happen, while the also-publicly-funded spy agencies probably get a blank check in a blacked-out portion of the budget with carte blanche to build the best ‘scopes concievable… something far ahead of what NASA can do. It makes you wonder about the ability of democratic governments, of which we are made to believe the Unites States is supposedly the pinnacle, to allocate their collective resources into meaningful and worthwhile pursuits. It makes you wonder about our priorities as a society… which I suppose are decided on our behalves by a tiny elite, as they always have been throughout history.
In the end, someone devoted to discovery, understanding, and endless research (aka science as a whole, science as a lifestyle) needs to calibrate their expectations. That’s a despicable euphemism but it’s a fact of life. In the world of academia, you will be hard pressed to find places where the engineering department funding and facilities outstrip that of the athletic department. Those rare enclaves exist as exceptions to the rule. Will governments continue to squander their cut of the GDP on self-indulgent machinations? Until the end of time. There is a constant battle going on inside of me, between cynicism and optimism. Which side of that battle rules the day comes down to what I focus on. For today, I want to force myself into focusing on the part of this tale where NASA gets two new Hubble mirrors for free. And remind myself that Kepler is still scoring more points every day while James Webb inches ahead here on the ground. All those facts are something worth toasting to. Here, here.