Beyond Einstein, not beyond politics

Steinn Sigurðsson, an astronomer at Penn State, wrote a long entry on his blog Friday night about some potential changes to NASA’s Beyond Einstein program, a series of missions designed to study issues like the Big Bang and dark energy. The most recent plan, according to Sigurðsson, was to make a decision around 2010 on what the first two flagship missions in the program would be among five current candidates. Now, he says, the NRC plans to convene a panel and make a recommendation to NASA in a year—three years ahead of schedule—on what the first mission should be, with the rest to die or, as he puts it, “go into suspended animation for a decade or more.” (NASA would not be bound to the panel’s recommendation.)

So what’s the rush? Sigurðsson blames inter-agency politics, with the Department of Energy, which is backing one of the five proposals, the Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM; also known as SNAP), apparently wanting a decision as soon as possible on the concept. “Oh, and they want it to be SNAP that is selected of course,” he adds. In addition, it’s a bit of an unfair comparison: while planning for JDEM/SNAP and two other missions, LISA and Constellation-X are fairly far along, the other two candidates, Inflation Probe and Black Hole Finder, are less mature and thus at a disadvantage. Also, NASA has already agreed to cooperate with ESA on LISA; if NASA backs out by not selecting it, he claims, “ESA will explode.”

Sigurðsson is worried about the long-term effect such an early downselect will have on the field of high-energy astrophysics: “potentially the careers of a couple of thousand scientists are at stake, if two major missions are permanently downselected then a lot of people are out.” I personally don’t have a good feel for the issues in this area; I would be interested in any informed comment regarding whether this issue is as dire as Sigurðsson claims.

1 comment to Beyond Einstein, not beyond politics

  • .

    (not related with this argument but related to future NASA spaceflights)

    I think that a (small SM, TEI-only) Orion is like a (single purpose) “CorkScrew”, while, a (big SM, multi purpose) Orion may be the “SwissKnife” of space exploration since it can perform autonomous (manned and unmanned) missions also without the LSAM.

    I explain my opinion in details (with a curious image and a list of TEN advantages of the bigSM Orion) in my latest article [ “CorkScrew Orion or SwissKnife Orion?” ] here: