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Revenge Of The AstroNerds

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April 20, 2009

I used to be an AstroNerd.  Back in the mid-1980s, I was a member of the Chicago Astronomical Society.   On the second Friday of every month, I would attend the monthly meeting at 7 p.m.  We would usually see slides of the spectacular space pictures taken by an astronomer who had the opportunity to use the telescope at some major observatory and there would be a discussion period.  Back then, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope seemed as though it would never happen because of the tragedy involving the Challenger space shuttle.  At the Chicago Astronomical Society meetings, I was amused by the fact that some of the members were outraged because manufacturers of “hobbyist” telescopes (such as Celestron and Meade) were introducing new scopes, driven by a hand-held computer, allowing the user to view dozens of different celestial objects over the course of an hour.  These complainers had been used to working on calculations as to where to find some binary star or nebula they wanted to see and spending almost the entire night trying to find it.  Suddenly, any spoiled brat with two thousand bucks to spend, could get involved in astronomy with a much greater reward.  To the old-timers:  this was cheating.  At the end of each meeting, I would walk home from the Adler Planetarium and watch Miami Vice.  Although I have yet to purchase a really nice Celestron, I eventually did move to Miami, where there is so much humidity and city light, you can only see a small handful of stars even on a clear, “winter” night.  To escape the reflected urban light, some people take their telescopes out to the Everglades and feed themselves to the alligator-sized mosquitoes.  Others risk death by driving along the two-lane, Overseas Highway (the head-on collision capitol of the world) to go sky-watching in the Florida Keys.

Last week, I was amazed by the television program, 400 Years of the Telescope, broadcast on PBS.   (It’s also available on DVD at the above link.)  I found it shocking that currently, there are a number of absurdly enormous earthbound telescopes under construction.  Apparently, computer technology can be used to enhance the images from these scopes to rival the views from the Hubble.  As for the Hubble, I was surprised to learn that the numerous repairs to that device, beginning with the heroic job by astronaut Story Musgrave, actually included upgrades.  The current image quality from the Hubble is now “hundreds of times better” than its designers ever anticipated.  An example is this photograph of the Orion Nebula taken in 2006.

Given our current economic crisis, astronomy and space exploration are having more trouble than ever obtaining funding.   An example of this is discussed in the current (May) issue of The Atlantic.  (As an aside, this issue has three great articles about the economy here, here and here.)  Thomas Mallon wrote an article about the current effort by a number of scientists and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, to develop and launch a privately-funded spacecraft that would be propelled by sunlight.  They anticipate that this concept could eventually be used for interstellar flight.  As Mallon pointed out, NASA will soon be out of the business of launching people into space, with no viable plan on the drawing board to continue doing so:

Between the shuttle’s planned retirement in 2010 and a new system’s development, the U.S. government will have to rely on the old Soviet Soyuz to get crews and supplies up to the International Space Station.  Worse, the first of our own new launch vehicles, Ares 1, is already beginning to look unreliable, at least in tests.  American politicians now mostly avoid the old conditional trope “If we can put a man on the moon” — because we can’t, not anymore.

Mallon explained that Ann Druyan has found it difficult obtaining funding because these days, the people with the enthusiasm for space exploration and the money — are using it to pay their own fare for a ride into space:

The Discovery Channel did put up a quarter million dollars to jump-start the renewed effort, and she has her fingers crossed for a few big potential donors she can’t really talk about.  Even so, she can’t get over the general timidity and lack of imagination she keeps encountering, and she’s particularly aghast at the scads of cash some ego-tripping big-money men seem willing to spend on personal space tourism:  “Isn’t the whole planet enough for them?”  Google’s Sergey Brin — whose company the project also appealed to, unsuccessfully, years ago — is yet another billionaire who hopes to romp around in orbit.

Although The Great Recession is having an attenuated impact on the super-rich, its consequences for society as a whole will be incalculable if too much scientific research is put on “hold” indefinitely.  Let’s hope that some billionaires rise to the occasion and save us from falling into a dark age of scientific stagnation.  Come on, Bill Gates  —  give your fellow nerds some help!