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American Astronomical Society Statement to House Science Committee Regarding NASA FY 2007 Budget

Status Report From: American Astronomical Society
Posted: Saturday, March 4, 2006

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Statement by
Robert P. Kirshner, President, American Astronomical Society
To House Science Committee Concerning NASA's 2007 Science Budget

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on NASA's 2007 science budget from my perspective as President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The AAS is the major organization of professional astronomers in the United States. The basic objective of the AAS is to promote the advancement of astronomy and closely related branches of science. The membership, approximately 7000, includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, and engineers whose interests lie within the broad spectrum of modern astronomy. AAS members advise NASA on scientific priorities, participate in NASA missions, and use the evidence from NASA's outstanding scientific discoveries to build a coherent picture for the origin and evolution of the Earth, the solar system, our Galaxy, and for the Universe as a whole.

In the recent past, the astronomical community, working together with NASA, has produced a remarkable string of successes that have changed our basic picture for the Universe: observations with the Hubble Space Telescope of exploding stars whose light has been traveling for half the age of the Universe combined with the exquisite map of the glow from the Big Bang itself from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and information from other observatories shows that the Universe we live in is not the Universe we see. Mysterious Dark Matter makes the ordinary particles clump together to make stars and galaxies. Even more mysterious Dark Energy makes the expansion of the Universe speed up. Both of these concepts challenge our understanding of the nature of matter and energy in the Universe and open up broad new vistas for future work. An ambitious set of Great Observatories, now including Spitzer in the infrared and Chandra at X-ray wavelengths is hard at work, enriching our understanding of how the Universe works.

Similarly, exploration of the solar system has been a resounding success for NASA, with exciting missions to Mars and to Saturn revealing a beautiful and intricate history that is interwoven with the history of our planet Earth. The discovery of planets around other stars has been a great triumph of the past decade, raising hopes for seeing planets like our own Earth, and placing our own solar system, and life itself, in a new context.

NASA's key role in these discoveries makes its science program of deep interest to AAS members. In the past, NASA has worked with the astronomical community to find the most promising paths forward. The James Webb Space Telescope is a large program that was endorsed by the NAS Decadal survey in astronomy. It will help expand the frontier of knowledge to the deepest reaches of space and time and into the hidden places where stars and planets are formed when it is completed next decade. The astronomical community also recommended, and NASA had planned to execute, a wide range of other programsósome of moderate scope and others that nourish the infrastructure for a healthy and vibrant community. This balanced approach has proved bestówith a range of opportunities carefully crafted to get the best science from NASA's science budget.

The current NASA budget for science is disappointing. Although it maintains JWST and provides for a possible refurbishment mission to HST, the sudden and wide-ranging retrenchments in this budget will halt, defer, or postpone programs to explore the solar system, to detect planets around other stars, to measure gravitational waves from astronomical events, and to seek the nature of the dark energy. Large, medium, and small programs are all proposed for cuts, without broad consultation with the community to see how best to shape NASA's program in times of finite resources. This seems unwise.

It seems particularly unfortunate to cut NASA's science budget at a time when there is broad and growing understanding in the Congress that America's future depends on living by our wits in a competitive world. NASA science has been a bright light, helping to inspire an interest in science and engineering for generations of students. It has been a great success in its own terms of generating a profound new understanding of the Universe we live in. For AAS members, the cuts in NASA's support for science offset or overwhelm the increases that have been aimed at improving America's competitiveness through the NSF, DOE, and NIST. A real effort to improve science and engineering in the US should treat NASA's science program as part of the solution.

The AAS and its members are prepared to work with Congress and with NASA to help find the best way forward. We will give you our best advice and we will work diligently to make the most of NASA's investment in science.

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