Exploring the universe
systems around other stars. The Kepler mission's price tag is upward of $600 million. Is that really a good way to spend other people's money?
Those fond of pointing out waste in federal spending have no shortage of ammunition, but most of us are weary of those sorts of arguments. These arguments work, to some extent, in that we really don't want to take "ownership" of a $750 airplane toilet seat (to cite an old example). But I rarely meet a person who minds having a few pennies of their tax dollars spent in search of other worlds, or exploring stars, galaxies or the early universe. In fact, most take pride in the accomplishments even though they, personally, have no direct part in the discovery.
Why? Kepler costs about $2 per American. We expect that by the time the mission ends, it will have discovered and characterized 3,000 planetary systems. So, one penny from each American's pocket will have paid for the discovery of 15 new planetary systems.
Few, if any, will tolerate even a clear and well-illustrated discussion of why an airplane's toilet seat has special properties - and if so,
they'd still be outraged at the price tag. But those same people, when hearing about the latest discovery of a planetary system, will then
wonder about how life might exist in that system without a thought about the material cost of the instrument, the costs of the salaries of the
researchers and their students, or the ultimate value to our economy or national security.
I think that the reason why most Americans enjoy hearing about discoveries in space is that they remember their early days in school, as children, innocently wondering about space and wanting to grow up to explore the universe. Though they may have been thwarted by the math, or physics, or by the distractions of embarking on a useful life, their fascination wit the universe has not diminished. They are glad that someone else is working on making these discoveries. Still they want (and deserve) to be told about these discoveries in ways that they can appreciate.
It is a fair bargain - a partnership. Taxpayers don't have to commit to a quasi-monastic life studying obscure math and physics, yet for a few pennies they can be a part of the exploration of the universe. To those of us who have spent our lives developing those peculiar skills, those aggregated pennies provide us with the support needed to do the work behind the headlines, while living relatively normal lives, raising families and developing ancillary technologies for application to more down-to-earth problems.
So, from one "monast" who has, by one route or another, been enabled to do something as eclectic as exploring the universe, a hearty "thank
you!" And have you seen this crazy new system we just found with Kepler? Here, let me show you...