The American Astronomical Society Testifies Before House Appropriators

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Publication date: 
21 March 2011

On March 11, Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society, testified before the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  She described the Society’s support for the FY 2012 NASA, National Science Foundation, and DOE Office of Science budget requests.  Elmegreen’s testimony highlighted a recent decadal survey, the importance of a restart of the Pu-238 production process, and urged Congress to reject efforts that would “shortchange our future by cutting funding on our most talented students, essential research, and entrepreneurial potential.”

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has 7,500 members, and is one of ten Member Societies of the American Institute of Physics.  Selections from the written testimony follow.  The entire testimony may be read at here.

NASA Budget Request

“The AAS supports the NASA budget request of $18,724 million. Within the NASA Science Mission Directorate, the AAS support the Division of Astrophysics request of $683 million, the James Webb Space Telescope request of $374 million, the Division of Heliophysics request of $622 million, the Division of Planetary Science request of $1,541 million, and the Division of Planetary Science Technology Program request of $133.9 million that includes
support for the critical restart of production of plutonium-238, necessary for missions that explore the remote parts of our solar system. The AAS also supports the Astrophysics Explorer Program request of $118.3 million, a highly ranked priority in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey.”

National Science Foundation Request

“The AAS supports the NSF request of $7,767 million and the Division of Astronomy requested funding level of $249 million.”

DOE Office of Science

“The AAS supports the Department of Energy Office of Science request for $5,416 million and the Office of Nuclear Energy plutonium-238 production restart for $10 million.”

STEM Education

“The excitement of scientific discovery is a powerful force among our Nation’s youth, and leads directly to an improved standard of living in our Nation by attracting talented young people to pursue STEM careers. Astronomy has a role to play in this regard, not just in uncovering the mysteries of the Universe, but by drawing young people to the worlds of science, technology and engineering. . . .  . Astronomy . . . is a mind-opening field that engages the public and schoolchildren in science; 60 million people go to museums and planetariums every year, 15% of all future K-12 teachers take astronomy as their only college science course, and 250,000 college students are enrolled in astronomy courses annually.”

Decadal Survey

"The AAS fully endorses the recommendations of the most recent decadal survey, completed in August 2010: the 'New Worlds, New Horizons' (NWNH) report. The recommendations of NWNH represent the consensus of the astronomical community on our priorities for research and activities in astronomy and astrophysics in the decade between 2012 and 2021."

"The astronomy and astrophysics divisions of NASA and NSF have designed FY2012 budgets to align with the recommendations of NWNH. The NWNH report is a balanced set of recommendations, with small, medium, and large projects and missions, for ground and for space, and also includes core research activities such as technology development, laboratory astrophysics, theory and computation, and data analysis and archiving. The top two large-scale
ground-based initiatives are the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Mid-Scale Innovations Program. The top two large-scale space-based initiatives are the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the Explorer Program."


“Let me speak briefly about another important issue, which involves two government agencies, is of low cost, and which has been a shining example of American prowess in scientific and technological achievement: the production of plutoninum-238 (Pu-238) and its integration into power modules that generate electrical power by converting heat into electricity. Pu-238 was produced in parallel with the production of fissile plutonium. With the end of the cold war and reductions in the need for fissile plutonium, the production of Pu-238 was also halted. Through radioactive decay, the stockpile of Pu-238 has dwindled, while also being tapped to power solar system exploration missions like the Cassini mission, which has generated so much new knowledge about Saturn and its rings and moons. For several years, the administration has sought to restart the production by proposing funding of roughly $30M total, while involving both the producer of plutonium (the Department of Energy) and the user (NASA). Only two nations, the US and Russia, are capable of producing or have stockpiles of this material. It is time again to produce our own.

“Restart of Pu-238 production is of critical importance to the development of planetary science missions. There is no viable alternative way to power deep space missions, as solar panels cannot produce enough electricity far from the Sun. If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a 5-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA’s needs. The delay will
push back the 12 proposed planetary space missions that require Pu-238. The delay could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, which in turn could bring about job losses, diminish the United States leadership role in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe. Given the magnitude of the funds necessary to regain our production capability, I strongly urge you to fund this request fully at the President’s requested level.”

Federal Spending

“We understand the need for fiscal restraint, and we agree that government needs to live within its means. Spending cuts, however, need to be smart and strategic. Cuts to government-sponsored scientific research and critical research facilities are counterproductive at a time when we are seeking to facilitate and spark economic growth. Such cuts would only hurt our long-term competitiveness, especially at a time when emerging economies such as China and India are ramping up their investments in scientific research and education. Europe seems poised to take over the US lead in ground-based optical and space-based astronomy. Cuts to research and facilities would also have a severe impact on cutting-edge research that is critical to our future. At DOE, the cuts would affect high energy and nuclear physics, magnetic fusion, heavy-element chemistry, nanotechnology, high-performance computing, advanced materials, and structural biology. Proposed cuts to NSF would have even broader and more far-reaching impacts in many other important scientific disciplines.

“It is time for America to tackle the largest drivers of our debt and deficit, rather than shortchange our future by cutting funding on our most talented students, essential research, and entrepreneurial potential. The Congress instead should look to the bipartisan Senate process that is considering the recommendations of the fiscal responsibility commission. Only reforms of this magnitude can reverse our budget outlook and enable smarter, more strategic decisions about
the non-defense discretionary portion of the budget. We know all of our elected representatives seek the long-term success of our nation and the maintenance of leadership in science and technology. The quality of life our children and grandchildren will inherit depends upon the choices you make.”

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