A Letter to the Congressional Appropriations Leadership
Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)
The most recent debt deal places strict caps on federal funding, with non-defense funding being held at $637 billion. This upper limit is roughly similar to the fiscal year 2023 (FY23) spending levels, and with inflation, it would essentially be a cut to all non-defense programs. However, the cap merely prevents Congress from allocating more resources than the limit; there's nothing preventing Congress from setting far lower funding levels either. Recent reports indicate that some members of Congress intend to do just that, clawing funding back to FY22 levels.
In response, the AAS sent out the following letter to the leaders of the House and Senate sub-committees on Commerce, Justice, and Science. These are the appropriations sub-committees, they have the final say in how much funding each agency and department receives in the federal government. Take a moment to read the letter, and consider contacting your representative to let them know just how important federal funding for NASA and the NSF is to you.
24 May 2023
The Honorable Jeanne Shaheen, Chair, Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee, S-128 The Capitol Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Jerry Moran, Ranking Member, Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee, S-146 The Capitol Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Harold Rogers, Chair, House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee, H-310 The Capitol Washington, DC 20515
The Honorable Matt Cartwright, Ranking Member, House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee,1036 Longworth House Office Building Washington, DC 20515
Dear Chair Shaheen, Ranking Member Moran, Chair Rogers, and Ranking Member Cartwright:
For decades, American astronomers have been at the forefront of exploring the endless frontiers of space and understanding humanity’s place in the larger universe. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) represents over 8,000 professional astronomers and astrophysicists; in addition, there are tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians working in the space sciences, a multibillion-dollar industry that has seen some of the most rapid growth of any sector. Maintaining that growth and ensuring our ability to reach the cosmos requires federal investment. We urge you to appropriate at least $11.9 billion for National Science Foundation and $9 billion for the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD).
We have witnessed some of the most extraordinary discoveries in the last year. On Mars, the Perseverance Rover discovered the presence of organic materials in an ancient river delta and collected the sample for future study with the planned sample return mission. The Hubble Space Telescope continued its legacy of achievement by observing the furthest individual star seen to date, a gravitationally lensed star over 12.9 billion light-years away. Meanwhile, JWST is just beginning to write its own legacy. In the first year of operations, it has discovered some of the youngest galaxies in the universe, interstellar dust forming from supernovae remnants, and the first clear detection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Our ground-based facilities have also had an excellent year. Building off the first-ever image of a super-massive black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope, several NSF-funded radio facilities joined together to observe the origins of the powerful jets that emanate from the black hole accretion disk. The Gemini South Telescope, another NSF-funded facility, discovered the most powerful explosion ever observed in the universe, in the form of a gamma-ray burst from a distant supernova.
Our future remains even more ambitious. In the next year alone, the launches of the Psyche and Europa Clipper missions and the return of the Osiris-Rex spacecraft will greatly expand our understanding of our own solar system. And the upcoming first light for the Rubin Observatory will push the bounds of astronomy and data science; its generation of 20 terabytes of raw data every night will kickstart a new wave of innovation in machine learning and signal processing. Beyond that, the decadal surveys in Astronomy & Astrophysics and Planetary Science & Astrobiology (and the upcoming Solar and Space Physics survey) outline a new revolution in technology that will result in the next generation of great observatories, such as the US Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) Program which will be the largest and most powerful ground-based optical/infrared telescopes on Earth, the Habitable Worlds Observatory which will be capable of imaging Earth-like exoplanets, and a mission to the distant ice giants of Uranus and Neptune to understand how the solar system formed. These ambitious missions require thoughtful planning and the technology maturation programs outlined in the decadal surveys will foster the environment needed in the public and private sectors to meet our goals responsibly.
Ever since 1958, the year that NASA and Kitt Peak National Observatory (the first NSF-funded national observatory) were founded, the United States has been the leader in the space sciences. A passion for science and a spirit of exploration inspired many Americans to pursue the field, which has been possible because of robust congressional support. We are deeply concerned by the proposed very deep cuts in non-defense science and technology programs. The lack of stable and reliable funding for NASA will inevitably lead to avoidable delays, increased lifetime mission costs, and a catastrophic drain of the US workforce. The NSF needs major funding growth, as authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act, to meet the challenges of future competitiveness, security, and resilience.
The United States has long enjoyed its position as the world leader in science and technology. But that position grows increasingly tenuous as other countries realize the potential for innovations in space. In the past decade, China has become the third nation to successfully launch a crewed mission to space, operate its own space station, and operate lunar rovers. They are the only nation other than the US to have a successful Martian rover. In just the past few months, China has announced plans for international and commercial partners in their space program, plans for a suite of space telescopes to rival those in our decadal survey recommendations, as well as plans to invest in the next generation of large ground-based astronomical facilities. As the United States’ commitment to science and technology is mired in budget debates, China is emerging as a reliable partner and leader for the international astronomical community.
Astronomy has long benefited from strong bipartisan support in Congress and the United States has long benefited from the scientific, technological, and inspirational successes of astronomy. Appropriate funding for NASA and the NSF is necessary not only to explore the endless frontiers but to lead the way into the future.
President, American Astronomical Society