In a crowded hotel ballroom in Washington Jan. 10, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the largest assemblage of astronomers in history that they should prepare to tighten their collective belts: “In short, we who run NASA today are doing our very best to preserve a robust science program in the face of, frankly, some daunting fiscal realities that affect all domestic discretionary spending. These realities dictate that we set priorities; NASA simply cannot accomplish everything that was on our plate when I took office last April. In space-based astronomy, and in other areas, we will have to make tough trade-offs between maintaining current missions, […], and developing new capabilities.”

The 3,100 gathered astronomers did not boo or hiss at this news; they applauded. I think that this response shows that astronomers are willing to work with NASA to continue the tremendous research efforts currently under way. Further, astronomers have been prioritizing their missions and projects for 40 years, responsibly providing policy-makers a recipe for scientific success.

Astronomy, astrophysics, space science and solar system exploration at NASA have never been more in the public eye or produced more exciting results than today. Scientists funded by NASA have cost-effectively constructed clever robot explorers and multifunctional telescopes that regularly capture the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

In January alone, comet dust was returned for the first time to Earth on the Stardust spacecraft, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched for a rendezvous with Pluto, and a multitude of new results have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, Galaxy Evolution Explorer and Chandra X-ray Observatory, to name just a few . In 2005, we saw the first pictures of the surface of a moon of Saturn (read those last 13 words again slowly, take a deep breath and read them again), pulled back the veil of mystery from the mysterious gamma ray bursters and learned more about the surface of Mars than in all of human history. We are truly in a golden age of astronomical discovery.

But despite the applause of astronomers for the straight-talking head of NASA and his well-worded speech, this golden age is under threat. Rising costs associated with the space shuttle, development of new human spaceflight architecture, and the continued construction of an international space station that will ultimately be mothballed are likely to significantly impact our nation’s space-based science programs.

Compound these internal agency issues with government-wide budget reductions and the future begins to look cloudy indeed. Rumors running rampant within the beltway indicate a strong chance of significant cuts to science missions in the soon to be released 2007 budget request. The short-term losers will be unveiled on Feb. 6, but they are likely only the first of many morsels to fall off of NASA’s plate.

In a very real sense, few astronomers have fully come to grips with the lean season looming on the horizon. Although NASA received authorization from Congress for a budget as large as $17.9 billion for 2007, it is doubtful that its proposed 2007 budget will climb much beyond $17.2 billion. (Congress ultimately appropriated $16.6 billion for NASA’s 2006 budget). That final 2006 budget nearly tripled the funding for Constellation Systems (the new infrastructure for human spaceflight). If this line item triples again in the 2007 budget and NASA’s top line does not increase significantly, astronomy funding at NASA will come to resemble the lean summer months in the Middle Ages, when the food stored from the previous year is exhausted and the new harvest has not yet come in. In other words, it will be a very lean season indeed.

Astronomy also is challenged by a very ambitious agenda for government support of research as outlined in the Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Although this National Research Council report is well-liked by policy-makers throughout government because it is a priority-ordered list , the most recent version filled NASA’s plate completely and piled a second serving on top to boot.

Because this report is so central to our field and has been so successful — nearly all projects in the past several reports have been seen through to completion — most astronomers figure that if a project appears in the report, then it will be completed. However, much remains to be done to complete the top-ranked space-based projects in the most recent survey, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the X-ray space observatory Constellation-X and the Terrestrial Planet Finder telescope. It is doubtful that these missions or others in the report will see completion this decade.

Astronomers await the release of the president’s budget with trepidation. We suspect the proposed budget will have significant cuts to some key programs. For those programs important to the astronomy community that are not supported by the president, advocates will visit Congress to make their case. The decision is ultimately in the hands of our legislators.

Astronomers have been a part of human culture since ancient times, and we will continue to play our part into the future. The sky above us stimulates deep questions and motivates our constant search for understanding. Funding comes and funding goes, but the universe remains whether we find ourselves in a lean season or not.

Much remains to be learned. Much of that learning can only be accomplished through observations made from space. It would be a tremendous pity if, in a mad rush to reinvent our nation’s manned spaceflight activities, the wondrous scientific results that NASA can uniquely provide were significantly reduced just when they were producing the most amazing results and resonating with the public like never before.

Golden age or lean season? The choice before the president and Congress could not be more stark.

Kevin B. Marvel is the deputy executive officer of the American Astronomical Society.