At Berkeley and beyond: Reinvesting in space exploration

Astronaut-Astro-C10_Jacky-Lu
Jacky Lu/Staff

Quintessential UC Berkeley conjures up many images. The Campanile, squirrels that may as well be human and the always appreciated Berkeley time all land among those elements, which, despite your major or your living situation, are bathed in ubiquity from Day One. A less obvious one to add to this list, though, is Introduction to General Astronomy or, as your savvy floormate calls it, Astro C10. If you go to this school and communicate with other humans, then someone you know has taken Astro C10, is taking Astro C10 or won’t shut up about how badly they want to take Astro C10. It’s a staple in the diet of anyone needing to complete those L&S breadths, and nine-time UC Berkeley Professor of the Year Alex Filippenko makes the course one of the most well-liked on campus. I mean, it has an unheard-of rating of 90 on Ninja Courses.

Despite the great popularity of this staple course, however, the astrophysics major is largely neglected. The astronomy department has been in the news as of late, as professor Geoffrey Marcy’s fall from grace has led to debate on women’s roles in astrophysics, the integrity of the department and the disconnect between scientific success and personal virtue. As the UC Berkeley astronomy department moves beyond this scandal, it would be worthwhile to consider what makes the field of study so important. The disconnect between astronomy’s popularity as an introductory subject and its appeal as a career is suboptimal. The study of the universe and our place in it is something integral to human progress, not simply a fun breadth requirement or an easy A.

When NASA’s budget reached its all-time peak in 1966, the United States was embroiled in the Cold War. A Space Race had begun, and the overwhelming notion of Americans was that the first nation to set foot on the Moon was the superior world power. During this year, NASA operated on a budget of $5.93 billion — an astronomical 4.41 percent of the federal budget. Three years later, the first man landed on the Moon. In 2014, NASA’s $16.64 billion constituted just half of a percent of the federal budget. Three years from now, NASA will still be decades from landing humans on a distant terrestrial object.

To be fair, we aren’t currently mired in a pissing match with another world power. But the apparent trend is that space exploration’s federal funding (which is intrinsically linked to public interest a la democracy) is contingent on how close the United States is to looking better than someone else. This is why the middle of the 20th century was perfectly conducive to innovation on all scales; a technological rivalry invigorated Americans to compete for scientific superiority.

As the years have progressed, interest in the exploration of space has declined. Without the carrot-and-stick rewards of bragging rights or economic stimulus, Americans are quick to abandon extra-worldly pursuits. Don’t get me wrong: Publicly funded space exploration has made great strides in the past decades. This year alone, we’ve found an exoplanet resembling Earth and received close-up images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. Massively important discoveries such as these garner some interest from the media for a few days before being forgotten for the next offensive Donald Trump rant. As news of the ever-dire situation of our planet becomes increasingly commonplace, we still continue to devastate Earth and ignore the universe and its abundance of information and resources.

Not all federal funding is gobbled up by defense and entitlements, though. The board of UC Observatories, or UCO, has a meager $5 million research budget that it mainly puts toward the maintenance and operation of the Lick Observatory and the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which will be the largest telescope in the world once completed. Lick nearly lost its funding in 2014, but after media attention and the efforts of several key speakers, such as Filippenko, funding to the observatory was restored. In spite of UCO’s efforts to fund the observatory and a recent $1 million gift from Google, Lick is still pockmarked with the telltale signs of an inadequate budget. The 127-year-old hydraulic floor underneath the observatory’s 36-inch refracting telescope is no longer adjustable, exponentially slowing the rate at which observers can locate specific objects in the sky. Filippenko’s Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope, the first of its kind, has duct tape securing its mirror in place.

The overall troubling picture is that the American people ignore the potential progress that space offers. A scientifically informed public would fund science to a greater degree, and the ensuing discoveries would exponentiate our current technical renaissance. But we don’t have a scientifically informed public. We have a public that, according to the National Opinion Research Center, has not once in the last 40 years polled higher than 22 percent in favor of increasing space exploration funding. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that three-quarters of Americans view NASA favorably, and the same poll also found that one-third of Americans believe humans will have colonized other planets by 2064. Yet that’s not where our taxes go. The American public — much like the UC Berkeley student body, which readily dips its toes but won’t take the plunge — is pro-space in rhetoric only. Until interest and action work in tandem, human colonization of other planets is beyond even the most distant horizons.

Hundreds of years ago, the practice of science was a taboo under the dynastic rule of religious figures. Galileo conducted his research under the private funding of the Medici family but was silenced by the Catholic church when he released his findings. As time progressed and science became equated with weaponry, kings and presidents began to fund science research to improve communications, medicine and other wartime necessities. The result was a technical revolution that changed the world and ultimately brought man to explore the universe in a way not typically thought possible until the 1950s. Soon after the peak of extraterrestrial exploration, a series of scares and disasters lost the public’s interest. Apollo 13’s near catastrophe and the tragic failure of the Challenger shuttle, caused by a lack of scrutiny by NASA directors, turned the public’s fascination with space to a skeptical fear. Since the 1980s, federal funding of NASA has plummeted, but the slack has been picked up by private research firms, which have taken great steps in supplementing a hindered NASA.

Private space companies, the most popular being SpaceX, are not only generating research from investment capital but also engaging the public with exciting branding. Not to say these companies succeed simply because of their brand: They often attract top researchers because of eye-catching salaries, an inherent advantage of commercially funded science. It seems that today’s research market is trending back to the days of Galileo, when those who sought to understand nature had to do so under the covert protection of the landed nobility.

Privatization has occurred because the money is all in the corporate sector, but space exploration as a field cannot survive without giants such as NASA. SpaceX and XCOR and all the other companies with a capital X in their name are incapable of mustering the massive resources and logistical measures that NASA has been wrangling for decades. Joint ventures between government programs and private companies, all things considered, make the most sense but are improbable. The essence of the public-versus-private debate boils down to the fact that small private companies operate more efficiently but that NASA’s infrastructure makes it an indispensable resource in the study of the sky.

UC Berkeley students decidedly love astronomy, and the American public has yet to knock on NASA’s door with pitchforks. In spite of this, the last time NASA’s funding occupied more than 1 percent of the federal budget, Ronald Reagan was trying to build a Death Star. At a time when the social mold of instant gratification has washed away any desire to spend longer than 45 minutes (the duration of an episode of “Cosmos”) learning about space, it’s crucial that one of the United States’ greatest traditions isn’t allowed to fizzle out. Our interest in space should not disappear the moment we turn in our final exam, and while I’ll concede that a career in astrophysics isn’t for everyone, I think the least we can do is keep the field alive. Just because we’re limited to a relatively small patch of the universe does not mean our understanding has to be.