Sky & Telescope (October, 2013): Money Spent Down Here

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Sky & Telescope (October, 2013): Money Spent Down Here

This is going to sound strange, but I had a lot of fun at July’s Green Bank Star Quest even though the nights were clouded out. This star party is held at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.

NRAO generously allows GBSQ attendees to tour inside the security gate for close-up views of the antennas. NRAO also permits the use of many of its facilities. GBSQ organizer Roy Jaworski of the Central Appalachian Astronomy Club lined up impressive speakers, including Jimmy Carroll, one of the “Rocket Boys” who inspired the movie October Sky.

Alas, the weather gods refused to cooperate. During the evenings I hung out with a bunch of organizers and attendees in the Drake Room, located in the dormitory where visiting scientists sleep. This is where Frank Drake unveiled his famous equation in 1961 for estimating the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy. While bemoaning the clouds, we shot the breeze about a wide range of topics. One night featured a spirited discussion about the lack of direction in the space program, which some felt to be symptomatic of the U.S. losing its edge.

As one attendee pointed out, NASA currently relies on Russia to ferry American astronauts to a space station built with billions of American taxpayer dollars.

A lot of frustration was expressed that our nation is being held back by a bitterly partisan Congress and a political system beholden to special interests. Several folks expressed the view that U.S. society has become overly litigious and risk-averse. As an example, one participant excoriated former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe’s decision to cease Hubble servicing missions because of safety concerns.

After discussing private initiatives, there was consensus that we need bold, visionary leadership to outline a compelling long-term plan for both human and robotic spacefl ight. But we all recognized that any major expansion in the space program will generate opposition, with the familiar refrain, “Why spend all this money up there when we have all these problems down here?” Retired NASA engineer (and amateur astronomer) Robert Dutilly passionately voiced a response: “All the money is spent down here.” As he explained, it’s spent training scientists and engineers, creating jobs, and developing technologies that eventually fi lter back into society, for everyone’s benefi t. If the U.S. is indeed losing its edge, this sounds like a way to reverse course.

Robert Naeye

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