Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Hand-Me-Down Hubbles

It's no secret that the people at NASA have had problems lately. They've suffered cuts in funding, the space shuttle had to be retired with no viable replacement ready, and their next generation "Constellation" rocket program got canceled. One of their signature achievements, the Hubble Space Telescope, is getting old and creaky, and there's really no good way to maintain it without the shuttle or something like it.
NASA got some good news recently, however, when the folks from the National Reconnaissance Office rang them up.
You may never have heard of the NRO. They don't go out of the way to promote themselves, because, as we shall see, they really don't need to. They're the agency, working under the aegis of the Department of Defense, that's "in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America's intelligence satellites," to quote their website.
Their motto is "Every Breath You Take We'll Be Watching You." (Actually, I made that up. Their real motto is "Vigilance From Above," which is slightly less creepy.) To carry out their mission, they've got lots and lots of cool gadgets and gizmos.
So many, in fact, that they apparently haven't gotten around to using them all, as NASA discovered when the NRO called and said, "Hey, we've got a couple of space telescopes we aren't using. They're sitting in the warehouse, still in the original shrink wrap. You want 'em?"
Apparently, the Spooks in Space have these satellites with telescopes at least as powerful as Hubble's. You know, the type of high resolution lenses that may not be able to read your newspaper over your shoulder like in the movies, but which can pick out an object the size of a baseball from hundreds of miles above the Earth. This will be very useful if the Chinese ever want to field a World Series contender.
The truly amazing (and somewhat frightening) thing is: Those are the ones that they let sit in the warehouse because they're already using better ones. Lord knows what those things can do. Probably count the change in your pocket.
So it occurred to some bright boy or girl at the NRO (a place, one assumes, that has no shortage of bright boys or girls) that if you turned a high tech spy satellite around and pointed it at the stars rather than at the Rooskies or the Chinese or whomever, you'd have a couple of Hubble-level scientific instruments.
The NASA people, of course, immediately accepted the unexpected gifts. Although they're not completely sure how they're going to use them yet, they're happy to have them, and I'm happy for them. But I have to confess to a certain amount of annoyance as well.
Think about it. The Hubble cost, at last estimate, $2.5 billion. Considering the amazing discoveries scientists have made and continue to make about the universe using this device, I'd argue that it was well worth it. Still, NASA had to lobby hard for funding, and it's having to hunt even harder trying to find the cash for the Hubble's planned replacement, the $5 billion James Webb Space Telescope (named after a NASA administrator, not the Virginia senator).
Some scientists are worried that the Webb telescope will eat NASA's entire astronomy budget. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has two Hubble-level telescopes it never even bothered to use.
Look, I'm all for a strong defense. And I think keeping an eye, electronic or otherwise, on the people who would do us harm is a great idea. I'm glad the fact that there's an organization like the NRO means that a massive, bolt-from-the-blue strike like Pearl Harbor can never happen again (although as the catastrophes of Sept. 11, 2001, showed, an attack doesn't have to involve fleets or armored divisions to be devastating).
Still, there's something wrong with our priorities when science goes begging and the DoD has high tech wonders just lying around. That's not fully funding defense, that's wastefully overfunding it in a time when the rest of us are being told that what we peons need is austerity, austerity, and more austerity, and when the men and women who do the actual fighting are scandalously underpaid.
But, hey, maybe we should ask the NRO to poke around in the warehouses some more. Who knows? Maybe there's another shuttle in there somewhere. Or even a Millennium Falcon. It'd be one wild garage sale, that's for sure.