Astronomy occupies a special place in the research portfolio of this country. Understanding the cosmos is one of the oldest intellectual goals of humanity, and the discoveries of astronomers clearly excite the imagination of the public at large. From primary schools to universities, from planetaria to features in the media, astronomy offers numerous opportunities to improve the scientific literacy of this nation, and astronomers are increasingly engaged in these educational activities. Although for many people astronomy is a clear example of one of the noblest of basic research activities, it is often less recognized that it can and does contribute to other national goals. In particular, its research activities depend on and contribute to the applied development of sophisticated sensors, an essential enabling technology for many scientific fields and for the defense, medical, and commercial sectors, modern astronomical facilities, and their sophisticated instrumentation, utilizing state-of- the-art detectors, computing resources, and optical design, are expensive.
Astronomers are fortunate that the Congress has authorized the construction of numerous major national facilities. National ground-based astronomical facilities are supported primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF), both in the construction and operations phases. Still, roughly half of U.S. astronomers must rely entirely on the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) for access to telescopes, and nearly all rely on NOAO facilities for some aspects of their work. In this eventuality, the panel recommends that the proper instrumentation and operation of the Gemini telescopes should have first priority. The panel also affirms the high priority for the ATI program, which was recommended by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee (AASC) report.
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