Astronomical discoveries of the past decade—images of the hot universe at an epoch before the first galaxies and stars emerged, of other solar systems beginning to take form, of planetary systems beyond our own—have captured the imagination of scientists and citizens alike. These startling advances are the result not only of the collective creative efforts of scientists and engineers throughout the United States and around the world, but also of the generous investments in astronomy over much of the past 50 years by federal and state governments, foundations, and individuals.
In the decades ahead, the pace of discovery—remarkable as it has been over the past—will accelerate. Astronomers stand poised to examine the epoch when galaxies similar to our Milky Way first took form, to image Earth-like planets beyond our solar system, and to learn whether some show evidence of life. To take these next steps will require significant investments of both imagination and public resources.
Because the magnitude of these investments will be large, it is fair to ask why astronomical research should merit such support. Perhaps the most persuasive, but least quantifiable, justifications lie in the importance American society has always attached to exploring new frontiers, and in the deep human desire to understand how we came to be, the kind of universe we live in, whether we are alone, and what our ultimate fate will be. Exploring frontiers of unimaginable mystery and beauty, astronomy speaks compellingly to these fundamental questions.
As researchers, astronomers experience the excitement of discovery most vividly and are the first to glimpse new answers to ancient questions. As a community of citizens fortunate to live in a society that supports them generously, astronomers believe strongly that “from those to whom much is given, much is asked.” It is in that spirit that the committee offers below an accounting of astronomy’s more tangible contributions to broader societal goals.
Astronomers’ most significant contribution to society lies in the area of science education, broadly conceived to include (1) raising public awareness of science, (2) conveying scientific concepts to students at all