Some have always questioned the space program. They point to a particular mission – for example NASA’s Juno spacecraft to Jupiter that will arrive 12 weeks from now – and ask whether we should have spent a billion dollars to return to a planet we’ve already visited. You could give 100,000 deserving students full four-year college tuitions for that money, they argue. What has more value: learning a bunch of new geeky things about faraway Jupiter, or sending a lot of kids to college?
There’s no easy answer. Maybe they’re right. But as someone whose life and livelihood have revolved around astronomy (and also someone who adores innovative technology), I must confess that some of today’s most expensive headline-grabbing projects do indeed seem more designed for hype than for science. They truly may not be worth the money.
There’s room on this page for just one example, so let’s pick a story in last week’s New York Times. The headline-making proposal by some little-known billionaire is a mission to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
Now, the project’s designers surely know that the phrase “first interstellar mission” guarantees front-page attention. The New York Times accompanied that article with a photograph showing an enormous blue star and the caption “Alpha Centauri.” Aside from the fact that the Alpha Centauri system is yellow-orange, meaning that the photo was a fake, everything else about it was iffy too.
The idea is to build an enormous mile-wide array of laser-shooting devices whose combined beam has 100 times the energy output of a nuclear power plant. They’d all focus sequentially at dozens or perhaps hundreds of tiny camera-equipped orbiting “probes,” each weighing around an ounce and each having a large fabric “sail” to catch the laser beam. In two minutes, each would attain one-sixth the speed of light, and then the laser array would focus on and accelerate the next “probe” in the armada.
Those sails would have to reflect all of the laser power. If they absorbed even 1/1000th of one percent of that energy, they’d vaporize and be useless. So a new ultra-reflective material must first be developed.
The “probes” would take 26 years to reach the two stars of the Alpha Centauri system, with no way to change course or slow down. They’d zoom past, taking photos and beaming them to Earth. If any planets were there, they’d appear as dots – just the way Jupiter and Mercury look these nights.
The question is: With at least a 20-year development, a 26-year travel time, lots of ways to fail and probably ten billion dollars in cost, is it worth it to (possibly) learn whether the nearest star has one or more planets orbiting it? (In this case, that same money could put one million kids through college.)
The point is not just to ask whether such information is really worth that cost; it’s to highlight the fact that the project’s sponsors know that they are gaining vast media attention because they’re proposing a “first” – namely, the first human technology to reach the vicinity of a star. So, in all candor, how much of this is true worthwhile science, and how much involves hype and publicity?
Increasingly, the science that gets funded by Congress and private donors is indeed driven by the potential to garner attention. By itself, that’s not a super-horrible development. But it’s something of which we taxpayers should all be aware – because, more often than was true two decades ago, we are seeing big-budget projects whose funds perhaps really could have been better spent elsewhere.