Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?

Buzz Aldrin, forty six years ago (NASA Image by Neil Armstrong)

Buzz Aldrin, forty six years ago (NASA Image by Neil Armstrong)

This column ran in The Tablet in July, 2006

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” The phrase, immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book (and the movie) The Right Stuff about the birth of the American human space program, has ever since encapsulated the problem facing everyone who works in a field as gloriously useless as astronomy. Telescopes and space probes cost money. So does the light and heat and toilet paper in our modest offices, even if we use nothing more elaborate than pencil and paper to do our work.

This past month [2006] I’ve been facing money issues on many levels. The American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences is holding its annual meeting in October, and I’m on a committee to pass out small travel grants to graduate students. NASA, the source for most of the funding in my field, is going through its annual cycle of evaluating research proposed by academics; to review the proposals and try to decide who best deserves the limited funding available, I’ll be meeting on another committee later this month. Even my own observatory is in the midst of fundraising tens of millions of dollars to support and upgrade our telescope. (Anyone out there have a spare million?)

NASA funding is especially tight this year, as the agency tries to fulfill all the different tasks that the US congress and president have placed on it: keep the space shuttle flying, send people back to the Moon and eventually Mars, support cutting-edge research into the design of tomorrow’s aircraft, and, oh yes, support about a thousand scientists and graduate students whose entire livelyhood is up for review on a yearly basis. Space science – the mundane paper and pencil models, the nights at the telescope – makes up only a small part of NASA’s budget, but it’s one without powerful corporate lobbyists or flashy public relations triumphs. It’s the seed corn, we keep saying, that tells us where to send the flashy probes and human missions. It’s also the easiest pot to raid when the need arises.

Naturally, I think it deserve more funding. Naturally, a lot of people in my field agree, and look jealously at the billions spent on the Shuttle and the International Space Station, not to mention the plans just beginning to send people back to the Moon. For a fraction of that cost, we could send a robot, you know... and I just happen to have the plans for one...

I sympathize. But I also see the other side of the story. After all, astronomy really is gloriously useless. It will be a few years before anyone makes money mining asteroids or running a resort hotel in orbit. So why do we do it? Why should Nasa (or the Vatican) give us a cent, much less the millions that we complain are so inadequate?

Ultimately, it is because exploration is one of those things, like art or music or prayer, that makes us human. And it is human exploration that we desire, at the deepest level. The unspoken rationale for each mission to Mars is to prepare us for the day when people will go there. We wouldn’t have the money to do any of our science, if that promise were not implicit in everything we do. No Buck Rogers, no bucks.

We won’t all of us be going to Mars. Indeed, most of today’s taxpayers may not even be alive by the time that mission finally comes. But it’s enough to have faith that someone will be going. And that faith is at least partially confirmed in knowing that shuttles (dangerous, indeed) are flying again; that, right now, people are in orbit around the Earth.

There is something familiar about it all. Through Neil Armstrong [forty six years ago, today!] we all walked on the Moon. That small step, perhaps, can help us understand how all humanity can fall by a single individual.

And by a single individual, be redeemed.

NASA funding hasn't gotten any better in the last ten years; indeed, the funding situation is even tighter today. The shuttle is no longer flying, plans to go back to the Moon and Mars have been shelved indefinitely. There's little Buck Rogers in the budget these days.


Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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