American Astronomical Society President Testifies Before House Appropriators

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Publication date: 
13 April 2012


Last month the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee received testimony from public witnesses regarding the Administration’s FY 2013 request. One of those testifying was Debra Elmegreen, President of the American Astronomical Society. Among the topics discussed in her testimony are the James Webb Space Telescope, proposed budgetary reductions for NASA’s Planetary Science Division, funding for other NASA missions, Plutonium-238 production, and funding for the National Science Foundation’s Astronomical Sciences, and Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction programs.

Elmegreen’s oral testimony follows; the full written testimony is here.

“Chairman Wolf and Ranking Member Fattah, thank you for the opportunity to comment on astronomy in the FY13 budget. I’m Debra Elmegreen, President of the American Astronomical Society and Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College. The AAS, the world’s largest organization for professional astronomers, supports the NSF and NASA astronomy budget requests while noting concern for NASA’s planetary science division.

“The American Astronomical Society lauds the federal commitment to STEM research. For decades, the U.S. has been preeminent in research on the Sun, Solar System, and Universe. Healthy research and analysis and technology development budgets in NASA and in the NSF, plus a balance among small, medium, and large projects, as recommended in the heliophysics, planetary, and astronomy and astrophysics decadal surveys, are critical to sustain a vibrant astronomical community that fuels our nation’s economic, scientific, and technological wellbeing. Support for astronomy provides inspiration to the public and America’s next scientists, engineers, and educators, from Nobel prize-winning Hubble Space Telescope discoveries of the Universe’s acceleration, to Kepler’s detection of thousands of planets orbiting other stars, the Mars Science Laboratory robotic mission, and the Solar Dynamic Observatory studying the sun’s variability.

“We thank Congress and the Administration for funding NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a 2001 top decadal priority. With a reach 100 times greater than Hubble, Webb will revolutionize our understanding of newly forming planets, black holes, and the first stars and galaxies less than a billion years after the big bang.

“The AAS is deeply concerned that the significant cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science division will preclude development of top-ranked large projects in the 2011 planetary sciences decadal survey, curtail planned international collaborations, and threaten national leadership in planetary research at all levels.

“Some key science goals can only be addressed through large missions, as underscored by Hubble’s paradigm-shifting discoveries. Future Mars missions are on hold, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is delayed. We urge Congress to support the balance of NASA activities by ensuring an affordable progression of large missions across the Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics Divisions.

“We stress the importance of a regular launch cadence of the high priority and highly successful medium-class planetary Discovery and New Frontiers missions and Astrophysics and Heliophysics Explorers, which are vital to develop knowledge and new mission concepts and train young scientists and instrument builders.

“We appreciate support in NASA’s Planetary Science Technology Program for the critical restart production of Plutonium-238, which is the only energy source for powering deep space missions such as Cassini Saturn.

“We support the increases to NSF Astronomical Sciences and related programs, while noting that new starts on astronomy decadal priorities will be difficult with the current budget. We appreciate funds for planning the top priority Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will rapidly scan the sky and detect Near-Earth asteroids, image billions of stars and galaxies, and map the Universe’s acceleration. Its nightly data rate of 10,000 Gigabytes will drive innovations in high-tech data mining. A strong Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction line is critical to enable projects such as LSST to follow previous top-ranked projects: the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, probing disks forming planets around Sun-like stars, and gas in distant young galaxies, and the world’s largest Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, to study magnetic fields that can impact Earth and orbiting spacecraft. A Mid-Scale Innovations Program augmentation in NSF is also important to enable highly ranked projects such as the revolutionary 25-meter CCAT submillimeter telescope that will complement ALMA in surveys of dusty regions in protostars and galaxies.

“Publicly funded programs help us develop and operate world-class facilities, support research and enhance our understanding of the Universe, enable us to educate and inspire students and fellow citizens, and maintain U.S. leadership in science, engineering and technology. Thank you and your committee for your bipartisan leadership and strong support of science.”