Space science is in a tight spot today. Much of it is funded by NASA and NSF, and both are facing very large cuts in the 2013 US budget.
So what’s a space and science enthusiast to do? If you’re Alan Stern – head honcho of the Pluto New Horizons probe and longtime scientific researcher- you start a new company that’ll fund space science by engaging the public.
So he did. The company is called Uwingu – Swahili for "sky" – and the team includes several top-notch scientists like Geoff Marcy, Andy Chaikin, Emily CoBabe-Ammann, Pamela Gay, Mark Sykes, and many others.
The idea is to create space-related products the public will like such as games, software, and merchandise. They’ll then sell them and use the profits to fund scientific research. People will be able to submit proposals for the funding, which will be peer reviewed to ensure high-quality work. And it’s not just research: they hope to fund space-based projects, education, and other science-supporting ventures.
Right now they’re just starting it up, and they need cash to get it rolling – getting an accountant, paying for server support, and the like. They’ve calculated that they need $75,000 to get it started (none of them is taking any pay until they’re up and running), so they created an Indigogo page for donations. Once they get Uwingu started, they’re confident they will be able to get money from bigger investments and really dig into funding projects. They expect to raise millions of dollars this way.
At the moment they’re not giving out specifics about the sorts of merchandise and apps they’ll have, because they’re trying to build a little suspense. However, I’ll note that half the people on their team are a) great scientists and good people, and 2) personal friends of mine. I trust them. If they say they can do this, then they can do this. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be posting about it.. and I just donated, too, so I’m putting my money where my keyboard is! They have nearly $13,000 as I write this (one person just donated $5000!), and a month or so left on the campaign.
The team also made a short introductory video:
In fact, Pamela interviewed Alan at length about Uwingu for Science Hour, which has far more info.
I hope you’ll consider donating to Uwingu. It’s a pretty bold idea, and one I think is worth exploring.
You won’t hear this from me much, but sometimes, just sometimes, I really love Congress. Especially my own Representative, Jared Polis (D-CO). Here’s why.
A few months ago, President Obama and the White House came out with their 2013 budget for NASA. There were a lot of cuts, but most devastating was a $300 million slashing of the planetary sciences budget – a huge 20% reduction in funding. The Mars program alone got cut nearly 40%.
The planetary science community felt betrayed, and took action. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the Pluto New Horizons probe, organized a "NASA bake sale/shoe shine" to raise public awareness of what NASA and planetary exploration does. Here in Boulder (where Alan and I both live) we had a couple of stands set up, and we gave out information about the program. We also had pre-printed letters to key Congresscritters supporting a return of NASA’s planetary exploration budget to previous levels – people signed those, we collected them, and then sent them to our Congressman, Jared Polis.
Representative Polis then delivered them to those other Reps.
I hadn’t heard anything in a while, and then out of the blue, I get this tweet from Rep. Polis:
It says, "@BadAstronomer I gave shoe-shine letters 2 Reps Wolf & Schiff/their response http://youtu.be/CYwl3avGJD4 I’m a better Congressman than videographer"
The link goes to a YouTube video he made, and here it is:
How flipping awesome is that? The two Congressmen are Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th District) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank – gotta love his website with the Griffith Observatory in LA as his banner!). I’m thrilled they took the time to respond and to appear on Rep. Polis’s video. I am very thankful for their support, and I hope they can reinstate NASA’s budget. I’ll note I got a letter from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as well, sending her support. While I disagree with her over private space efforts like SpaceX, I’m glad to see her supporting NASA.
We need to explore. We must explore. It’s part of what makes us human: our curiosity, our need to know, and our compulsion to understand. It’s how we learn, and while we don’t always know what we will learn, we do know that more knowledge is always better. And sometimes those investigations pay off multiple-fold.
Regular readers know I have my issues with this Congress. But here we see three Representatives and one Senator supporting NASA, and that’s a difficult stance these days on Capitol Hill. I again thank them, and hope that in the coming year and those after, NASA receives the money it needs to do what it needs: explore the Universe.
FACT: NASA’s total budget is less than 1% of the Federal spending. Way less than 1%.
FACT: The proposed fiscal year 2013 budget out of the White House has huge cuts to NASA. Planetary sciences alone has $300 million slashed from it.
FACT: If this cut stays in the budget, NASA will have to pull back from some big and exciting planetary missions. It’s already made NASA back out of an agreement with the European Space Agency on two ambitious Mars probes.
FACT: This sucks. A lot. America leads the way in scientific planetary missions, and this cut will hurt that, significantly.
It’s unclear if Congress will reinstate that money. So what can we do?
My friend Alan Stern — head of the new Horizons Pluto probe already on its way to the tiny world — decided to try something radical: raise public awareness about all this by holding various "fund raisers" across the nation — bake sales and car washes! Yes, you read that right: planetary scientists will be washing cars and giving away cookies to help save NASA. It’s not really about raising money, it’s about getting peoples’ attention on this. Folks will get a chance to talk to scientists and find out what NASA does, and why it’s important.
This event will be held at various locations around the US on Saturday, June 9th — tomorrow! You can get some of the basic info on the SwRI Planetary Bake Sale page. There’s also a Facebook page, and the good people at SETI have a page on it as well, and they have links to more info on the budget cuts. Search Google for local info.
Here in Boulder, Colorado, we’re doing our part too. It turns out local laws make car washing and bake sales a problem, so Alan decided to shine shoes. Again, yes, you read that right. He and other scientists will be at the First United Methodist Church of Boulder at 1421 Spruce Street, right off the Pearl Street Mall, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. shining shoes and raising awareness.
I’ll be there too. These cuts came as a huge shock, especially since the White House seems to have been supporting planetary science up until this new budget was released. I’m pretty ticked. With this new budget, we’re dumping any future Cassini-type mission… and think about what Cassini has done for us just in terms of bringing beauty and awe into our lives. Or just click here and peruse the dozens upon dozens of posts I’ve written about just Cassini itself.
I know we’re facing tough economic times. but not investing in space exploration is equivalent to eating next years seeds. Sure, it saves a little money now, but the cost down the road is far, far too high. We must explore. Just as we must get our government to understand that.
I hope you’ll visit one of the many places where the bake sales are set up. And if you’re local to Boulder, come see us! Get your shoes shined, and your future back in your own hands.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
I got a note from astronomer Alan Stern, who is the Principal Investigator on the Pluto New Horizons probe currently on its way for a 2015 flyby of the diminutive world. There’s a drive to get a US postal stamp made to honor Pluto, and Alan was letting me know the petition is doing well, but has a long way to go: they almost at 10,000 signatures, but they want 100,000!
You can read more about this in my post from early February. I think this is a pretty nifty idea, and if you do too go and sign the petition. If we can get this rolling now, a stamp will be issued to surplant the one made in 1990 that said Pluto has "Never been Explored"… just in time for that to be no longer true.
But hurry — your last chance to sign the petition is March 13, in just a week. Go!
In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past Pluto, giving us our first close-up view of this tiny world.
The team behind the space probe have a nice idea to help raise awareness of it: make a new US Post Office stamp commemorating it. My friend Dan Durda, both an accomplished astronomer and artist, created this lovely design of the stamp:
[Click to enhadesenate. Note: the word "Forever" means the stamp is always good for first class postage, and is crossed out here to prevent forgery.]
It shows the spacecraft going by Pluto and its (relatively) freakishly large moon Charon. I like how he didn’t go for photorealism, but instead used an oil paint-like feel for it. The stamp is meant as a followup — I might even say send-up — of a US stamp issued in 1990 about Pluto that has the label "Not Yet Explored".
I like this stamp! I’d love to see it made official, too. Alan Stern, the head guy for the mission, created a petition to help that along. It takes more than just a nice stamp design to get the PO’s notice; it has to have public support as well. I signed the petition, and if you want to, please do.
I’ll note that I expect this to raise the specter of whether Pluto is a planet or not. I have some thoughts on that, and I’ll be posting again soon on that topic.
[I want to start off this article with the conclusion, because the post is somewhat long and I want to avoid at least some of the slings and arrows that will inevitably turn up in the comments. Bottom line: I don't want to see JWST canceled, but neither do I want it to hurt other NASA missions. However, the reality of the situation is that unless Congress fully and independently funds JWST, it is very likely it will siphon funds from other missions and could do a lot of damage to them. Both the people supporting and attacking JWST make excellent points, but they also assume that extra money will not be found to fund it. I cannot say if that's a good assumption or not, but if it turns out to be true, JWST and NASA are in for an extremely distressing future.]
The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to Hubble, may be reaching the most critical juncture in its life: a vote by a U. S. Senate subcommittee on whether to fund it or not. The House version of the funding bill has the budget for JWST zeroed out. In other words, the House wants to kill it. The Senate has to vote on their version of the budget, and then the two chambers must reconcile the two versions. If the Senate votes to defund JWST, it’s essentially dead. The first version of that process may begin today.
What’s at stake
Here’s the thing: I don’t know how I feel about this.
On the one hand, JWST promises huge, huge science. Every time we’ve built a bigger telescope with new capabilities, we’ve learned things we didn’t even know we didn’t know. Hubble did that in spades, and JWST’s mirror will be far larger — and it will be the most sensitive telescope in the infrared ever built, allowing us to see deeper and more clearly in that wavelength range than ever before. It has and will provide new advances in technology and engineering, and will be a workhorse for science, used by hundreds of researchers for years to come. It will, quite literally, be the Hubble of its age.
On the other hand, cost overruns and mismanagement have been really bad (at the blog Starts With A Bang!, Ethan Siegel argues that this is both NASA’s fault and that of Congress, and I’m inclined to agree). A month or two ago I would’ve argued that this, though, was all behind us, and the cost to launch JWST would be small compared to canceling it. In fact, I did argue exactly this. However, things have changed. As I pointed out recently, an independent committee put together by Senator Barbara Mikluski found that the actual cost to launch JWST and run it for five years adds several billion dollars to the NASA estimate. Again, Ethan Siegel’s post describes this is all-too-painful detail, and the L. A. Times has an OpEd on this as well.
The impact of funding JWST
And there’s the heart of the issue. Read More
Here’s what it said:
The attached open letter was sent to Congress today after being signed by over 55 space leaders.
The letter urges Congress to fully fund NASA’s plan to use commercial companies to carry crew to the Space Station.
Among the letter’s signatories are an unusually broad group of former NASA executives and advisors, former astronauts, CEOs and directors of firms large and small, space scientists, space journalists, and others. We include 14 former NASA astronauts, 5 former NASA senior executives, 13 educators and nonprofit leaders, and 24 space industry leaders from a wide variety of firms and institutions, both large and small.
I am a big advocate of this, having written many times that NASA should be exploring and creating new technologies, but should not be in the business of hauling stuff to space. That is better — and more cheaply — done by commercial contractors.
Here’s one part I particularly like:
Regular readers may know me as the beloved online blogger for Discover Magazine, but I also sometimes write longer articles for the print version as well.
Last summer, I wrote a piece on the search for small solar system objects that might, theoretically, circle the Sun inside Mercury’s orbit. Called vulcanoids, they are extremely difficult to observe, which is why it’s still not certain if they exist or not (I wrote a brief post about this back in 2008). Two astronomers (and friends of mine), Dan Durda and Alan Stern, are hot on the trail of the purported possible planetesimals; I talked to them about their chase and the history of the search for these hot little objects.
Until now, the article was only available in the print magazine or to online subscribers, but now my brilliant prose is open to the public. Seriously, this is a pretty cool topic, and one that most people don’t know about. The region between the Sun and Mercury is closer to the Earth than the main asteroid belt, yet we know much less about it. Read the article and find out why.
Then you might want to attend the 2011 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, which will be held from February 28 – March 2, 2011 in Orlando. This is a serious, professional meeting with people who want to do scientific research on board suborbital rockets. I attended last year’s conference in Boulder and it was a fascinating look into a new field of research. Two of the organizers are my buddies Dan Durda and Alan Stern. Both are training to be astronauts, both have extensive flight experience, and both are top-notch astronomers and scientists. A lot of private and government space agencies have representatives that attended last year’s meeting, so this one will no doubt be a very interesting event as well.
Deadline for abstract submissions for talks is November 23 — Tuesday, so hurry! — although general registration runs through February.
In the first part of this post, Researching at the edge of space, I talked about the scientific frontier about to be opened up by suborbital flights up to 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. The possibilities for science are exciting… but at the meeting I attended about these rockets, there was something else going on. And as interesting as the science involved with this will be, there was something bigger on everyone’s mind. At the meeting, the electricity about it was palpable, and it was obvious what it was.
We are at the very threshold of easy, inexpensive access for humans to space.
At $200,000, a flight to the edge of space is cheap. That’s well within the budget for a lot of people on this planet. Not me personally (dagnappit) but I know people who can afford that. And hundreds of human beings across the world have signed up.
This isn’t make believe. No, this is quite real. So real, in fact, that Alan Stern and Dan Durda, both friends of mine, both astronomers, and both men with their eyes firmly planted on the skies, created this video. You really, really need to see this.
They also have a followup video about the training of the first class of citizen astronauts as well.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will probably be the first company to launch private citizens into space. They have already sold 300 seats and have deposited $39 million in advance sales! At the meeting, Steven Attenborough with VG said that they expect Space Ship 2 to do a "drop test" (literally be hoisted up to 50,000 feet and dropped by an airplane for a test landing) in the fall of 2010, and undergo its first power tests by the end of the year.
Humans will then be loaded up and sent into space in 2011. That’s next year.
People always lament that we’re past the year 2000 and we still don’t have flying cars. Personally, I don’t trust 95% of the people driving on the ground, let alone in the air. But it doesn’t matter, because the future is here. It’s now. Next year, people will be flying into space. Into space.
This is beyond cool. This is fantastic!
No, scratch that. The base root of that word is fantasy, and this is as real as it gets. While a lot of people have been whining about how the future never comes, my friends and a lot of others will soon be strapping themselves into rockets and making the dreams of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and millions of others come true.
Per ardua ad astra. Hodie.