state-funded ground-based telescopes and with NSF initiatives that include the Green Bank Telescope, the Gemini telescopes, the Arecibo telescope upgrade, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA/MMA). Yet funding for instrumentation, theory, and observer grants at NSF has not kept pace with support for construction. Facility instrumentation for major new telescopes is a clear need for the foreseeable future in response to the leaps in technical capabilities and the large increase in telescope collecting area. Training of instrumentalists for both ground- and space-based facilities is also an outstanding need.

Finding 4. As a result of NASA's increased role in astronomical research funding, a large portion of the total support is tied to a few flagship space missions.

NASA is a mission agency whose program is strongly focused on initiating and launching space-based instruments. Funding for operations and research accompanies each mission. This paradigm has been extremely effective in maximizing the scientific return from these missions. However, the worrisome corollary of this arrangement is the potential for premature termination of the research support associated with a mission in the event of a catastrophic mission failure. Although NASA has a strategic planning process that is quite effective in engineering smooth transitions from one mission to another, there appears to be little explicit planning for unexpected or premature mission termination.

If a centerpiece astronomical research mission in space were to fail at a time when follow-on missions were far in the future, the impacts would include not only the loss of a major observational tool, but also the premature termination of the stream of research data and the flow of funds to analyze the data. Because analyzing the data from such major missions is the work of a significant fraction of the astronomy and astrophysics research community, the personnel impact could be substantial, which could in turn dampen the community 's ability to help plan for, and utilize, future missions. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) grants program accounts for roughly 25 percent of all individual investigator funding in astronomy. It supports researchers at all levels, including students and postdoctoral fellows. In the event of an HST failure, the additional loss of jobs directly associated with the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center would be substantial, not to mention the loss of a primary scientific capability. Recovery of the scientific personnel complement and the nation's astronomical research capability from such a catastrophe would be slow.

Most important is that a significant fraction of the support for the youngest members of the field comes from such missions. The impact on the youngest astronomers, such as those supported by Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, Hubble, and Chandra fellowships and those supported by the research and analysis (R&A) funds for such missions, would be disproportionately large and would significantly affect the future of the field.

The committee's four findings have led it to suggest that the following proposition be considered in future assessments of the field: plans for future facility construction, both ground and space based, should be accompanied by a strategy to accomplish the scientific mission, including provision of instrumentation for ground-based telescopes, support for observations, and funds for the necessary and relevant astrophysical theory. The strategy should address the following objectives:

  • Ensuring continuity of research in critical subfields in the event that major facilities are lost or significantly delayed;

  • Developing new instrumentation for both space- and ground-based facilities;

  • Training instrumentalists;

  • Optimizing the distribution of spending on hardware and personnel; and

  • Maintaining flexibility to respond to changes in the directions of research in astronomy and astrophysics.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement