Planetary scientists propose next NASA boondoggle

The decadal survey's fantasy about future budget allocations
Figure 22.2 from the decadal survey, outlining its fantasy about future
budget allocations.

Let me admit right off the bat that my headline above is a bit too cynical as well as a bit unfair. In releasing yesterday their decadal survey, outlining what they hope planetary missions NASA will do in the next decade, the planetary science community was mostly interested in recommending the planetary missions in the coming decade it thought would provide the best actual science.

The problem is that in recent decades, these decadal surveys, from both the astronomers and the planetary scientists, have evolved into documents designed to encourage a few big expensive missions, rather than a suite of many smaller probes to many different places. For examples, consider this quote from the article in Science describing yesterday’s announcement:
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Astronomers release fantasy proposals for government telescopes in the 2020s

The astronomical community today released its newest decadal survey, a outline of what major new telescope projects that community recommends the federal government should fund for the next ten years.

More details here.

This is I think the seventh such decadal survey since the first in the early 1960s. In the past these surveys prompted the construction of numerous space telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, and many others. Until 2000 these survey were enormously influential, which is why space-based astronomy boomed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now I call it a fantasy because I think it unlikely that most of its proposals — especially the space-based projects — will see fruition, based on the recent history in this century. For example, the 2001 survey recommended the James Webb Space Telescope among many other recommendations. The cost overruns of that project however eventually caused almost all the other space-based proposals to be cancelled, not only in the 2000s but in the 2010s as well. Furthermore, the 2010 survey called for the building of WFIRST, another Webb-like big space telescope that is now called the Roman Telescope, and that project’s high cost and complexity has further forced the elimination of almost all other new space telescopes. Nor has Roman been built and launched in the 2010s as proposed. It is still under development, with the same kinds of cost orverruns and delayed seen with Webb, which means in the 2020s most of the new proposals in this latest decadal survey will have to take a back seat to it, and will likely never get built.

Prove of my analysis is in the report’s press release:

The first mission to enter this program should be an infrared/optical/ultraviolet (IR/O/UV) telescope — significantly larger than the Hubble Space Telescope — that can observe planets 10 billion times fainter than their star, and provide spectroscopic data on exoplanets, among other capabilities. The report says this large strategic mission is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake and for which the U.S. is uniquely situated to lead. At an estimated cost of $11 billion, implementation of this IR/O/UV telescope could begin by the end of the decade, after the mission and technologies are matured, and a review considers it ready for implementation. If successful, this would lead to a launch in the first half of the 2040 decade. [emphasis mine]

Proposing something that won’t be built for two decades is absurd. And the cost is even more absurd, as it is ten times what Hubble cost and seems more designed as a long term jobs program where nothing will get built but money will continue to pour in endlessly to the contractors and astronomers hired. That is what Webb and Roman essentially became.

Astronomers begin their 2020 decadal survey

The astronomy community has begun work on their 2020 decadal survey, the report they issue at the start of every decade since the early 1960s outlining their space priorities for the upcoming ten years.

While the first four decadal surveys were very successful, leading to the surge in space telescopes in the 1990s, the last two surveys in 2000 and 2010 have been failures, with the former proposing the James Webb Space Telescope and the latter the Wide Field Infared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), both of which have not launched, are behind schedule, and significantly over-budget.

The new survey appears focused on addressing this.

The 2020 decadal survey will develop detailed cost estimates for each project, as well as guidance for what managers can do if money gets tight. “We have to look at the budget reality while also doing things that are visionary,” says Fiona Harrison, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-chair of the effort.

Unfortunately, it is also going to focus on leftist identity politics.

Responding to problems of racism and harassment in science, the survey will also assess the state of astronomy as a profession and make recommendations for how it can improve. “We’re going to go there,” says the other co-chair, Robert Kennicutt, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Texas A&M University in College Station.

I do not have high hopes for this decadal survey, or for space science in the 2020s. The space astronomy community chose badly in the past twenty years, and it is likely going to take another decade for it to recover. For example, WFIRST appears to be going forward, and it also appears that it will be the same financial black hole that Webb was, eating up the entire space astrophysics budget at NASA for years.