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Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium
For well over 50 years the United States has enjoyed a leading position in astronomy. Remarkable studies of the skies with the Palomar 5-m telescope began in 1948. Rising to the challenge presented by Sputnik in 1957, the federal government put into place highly visible space- and ground-based programs. These marvelous resources for astronomy helped to attract some of the nation’s best young minds to careers in science and engineering. The technological by-products of this effort, particularly in computing, aeronautics and astronautics, telecommunications, numerical simulation, and optics, have helped to give the nation an economic competitive advantage. The field of astronomy continues to attract scientists, and Ph.D. production is up. In 1987, 100 Ph.D.s were awarded, and in 1997 that number increased to 197 (NSF, 1999a). However, a critical time is at hand for astronomy in the United States. Space-based astronomy appears to be thriving, but U.S. leadership in astronomy as a whole is threatened by the decreasing share of federal investment in basic research in astronomy through the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The two lead agencies for astronomical research in the United States, NASA and NSF, support space- and ground-based studies, respectively. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) also sponsor programs that include astrophysics. In the past decade, NASA and its scientists have been extraordinarily successful in communicating their scientific vision to the public and the Congress. Astronomy carried out in space, free from the interference of Earth’s atmosphere, produces spectacular images of the cosmos at wavelengths ranging from the far- and near-infrared, through the optical and the ultraviolet, to the x-ray. Because “a picture is worth a thousand words,” these beautiful and exotic images elicit a deep and immediate response among scientists and nonscientists alike. Their impact helps explain the public’s enthusiasm for the nation’s space program. The data provided by the suite of NASA missions has revolutionized our understanding of the universe.
Opportunities for U.S. astronomy from the ground using large optical and radio telescopes are equally challenging and compelling. For example, the Keck and Gemini telescopes offer high-resolution spectroscopic capabilities that, combined with theoretical analysis and computational modeling, can yield insight into the dynamics, chemical composition, and evolutionary state of the objects imaged from space as well as a wealth of other astronomical phenomena detected from the ground. In addition to very large filled apertures, another advantage that ground-