In The Field

AAS 2010: Charlie Bolden, science cheerleader

bolden3.jpgThe astronomers heard what they wanted to hear. Even as NASA sits in limbo, awaiting a presidential decision on the future of the human spaceflight programme, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told hundreds of astronomers that their budget would be sacrosanct. “The future of human spaceflight will not be paid out of the hide of the science budget,” said Bolden on Tuesday in a jam-packed NASA town hall at AAS.

But whether Bolden can deliver on that promise won’t be revealed until February, when the Administration releases its fiscal 2011 budget, and also when President Barack Obama delivers his state of the union address. Rumor has it that the speech will reference NASA’s future, and will contain Obama’s long-awaited decision, one that was supposed to come in the wake of a blue-ribbon report chaired by Norman Augustine last summer. That report laid out the grim options for human spaceflight at NASA, a programme that was perhaps $3 billion a year short of returning to the moon. While Bolden claimed not to know anything about Obama’s impending decision, it is not hard to read the tea leaves. Many of the Augustine report options favor jettisoning the Ares I rocket in favor of commercial providers of rockets. NASA would then focus on a heavy lift vehicle, though it might take a different guise than the current Ares V.

In the absence of hard facts, Bolden stuck to the role of cheerleader, telling war stories about his delivery of Hubble Space Telescope to orbit as a shuttle pilot. He exhorted the scientists to focus on outreach and education, almost exactly the opposite of the approach of former Administrator Mike Griffin, who at a conference two years ago dismissed outreach as not being part of NASA’s core mission. Bolden also told the audience that they better get used to international partners and collaborations. He mentioned how he was encouraging JAXA, the Japanese space agency, to turn a space station cargo rocket into something that could ferry people.

But a reporter pressed him: Will the US have a human-rated rocket by 2020? Bolden said he was confident Obama wouldn’t end human spaceflight. Bolden said he would be shocked if the US didn’t have something by then. Later, Bolden said he was shocked the US didn’t have the capability already. If in 1980, “you had told me that we would not be back on the moon today,” he said, “I would have told you you were smoking dope.”

Bolden is all heart — an emotional, sincere and passionate speaker. He sometimes chokes up — something that belies his past as a Marine Corps attack pilot. The contrasts between him and the bluntly logical Griffin are impossible to ignore. But no amount of positive thinking will change the reality that NASA is in a pickle. Even if the science budget isn’t robbed, it could be starved: many predict flat budgets for the agency next year, and there is still time for the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2014, to continue to eat up the astrophysics budget.

Last year was great for NASA astrophysics, with the launches of Kepler and WISE and Herschel, and the continued success of Fermi. By contrast, when Bolden detailed the years ahead for NASA, the only mission he could point to in 2010 was SOFIA, a 747 with a puncture wound in its side that contains an infrared telescope. It is set to begin science flights in 2010, but its budget has also ballooned over the years and many say the mission will be out-performed by Herschel.

Yet Bolden, ever the optimist, pointed out that, relative to the deeper past, times have never been better. In 1990, astrophysicists could gather data from five missions in operation. In 2000, there were nine. In 2010, he said, there are 15.

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