Expecting Exceptionalism from Explorers

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The word “pipeline” conjures up images of oil flow and thoughts on gas prices, but there’s another pipeline at least as valuable to our nation: the pipeline for producing future scientists and engineers. Healthy budgets for research and analysis and technology development provide the fuel to sustain America’s well-being through innovation and education, which in turn have a direct positive impact on our economic and societal health.

It has been a spectacularly successful year in astronomy, with the awarding of the Nobel Prize to American astronomers for discovering the universe’s acceleration through observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories, the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory robotic mission on its way to determine the habitability of Mars, and the discovery by NASA’s Kepler mission of thousands of planet candidates, including hundreds of possible Earth-like planets. Discoveries through these and many other projects and missions (such as the Chandra X-ray satellite to study supernovae and other energetic objects, the Solar Dynamic Observatory to study the sun’s variability, and the nearly complete Atacama Large Millimeter Array to study gas in protostars and distant galaxies) provide inspiration to the public as well as the next generation of America’s scientists, engineers and educators. We must maintain the momentum gained from these advances in order to continue American exceptionalism in science and technology.

One of the key conduits for training and engaging the experimental scientists, engineers and managers who will execute the major missions and observatories of tomorrow is through small-scale and mid-scale projects. Within NASA, these include the Explorer missions in the Astrophysics and Heliophysics divisions and the Discovery and New Frontiers missions in the Planetary Science division. These missions yield excellent scientific return for the investment and have the capability of responding rapidly and flexibly to new scientific opportunities. Both the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, “New Worlds, New Horizons,” and the 2011 planetary science decadal survey, “Vision and Voyages,” place high priority on these mid-scale activities. (The heliophysics decadal survey is due out this summer.) The decadal surveys recommend a regular launch cadence of about two years for these highly successful missions, yet this cadence is slipping and endangering our pipeline.

The three dozen Explorer, Discovery and New Frontiers missions to date span explorations of everything from nearby planets to the distant early universe:

  • Mars Pathfinder landed the first of the robotic rovers, Sojourner, on the martian surface.
  • The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe confirmed the inflation of the universe in its earliest moments, which led to structure in the universe today, by determining the properties of tiny fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation.
  • Deep Impact probed comet Tempel 1 to yield clues about our early solar system.
  • The Galaxy Evolution Explorer collected wavelengths otherwise blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere to study objects ranging from interstellar gas to stars to nearby and distant galaxies, and in particular helped confirm that dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe.
  • Kepler, with its unprecedented planet-finding ability, is a Discovery mission.
  • The Explorer mission Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, which should launch within the next two months, will observe the X-ray sky with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution to examine the universe’s most energetic objects, including supernova remnants and black holes.

In each case, these missions have provided rapid turnaround from concept to launch to data analysis, enabling and furthering research and pushing technological development for future large missions. Equally important is the fact that the smallest Explorers are university-sized missions, bringing the complete experience of missions within the realm of our students.

Each NASA mission has an educational and outreach component. Besides the glamour of space images and the glory of space successes, the educational components of these missions stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, a national priority in order for America to remain a leader in science and technology and improve our low science literacy rates. These concerns are highlighted in the still-relevant 2005 National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which led to the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act. They are reiterated in President Barack Obama’s priorities, as he calls on America to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” To achieve this output, we must commit to federal input.

The decadal reports call for a balance among small, medium and large projects and missions. In the president’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget, there are line items for the Explorer and Discovery and New Frontiers missions. However, their launch rate has been slowing down over the last few years. The next Announcement of Opportunity for a Discovery mission is not until fiscal 2015, and for an Explorer not until fiscal 2016. This rate is too slow to sustain a healthy production of scientists and engineers between the large missions. We expect exceptionalism from our Explorer-class missions, and we need to keep them on track so as not to endanger our intellectual pipelines. Otherwise, we stand to lose much more than oil.

 

Debra Meloy Elmegreen is president of the American Astronomical Society and the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.