The Stars and Planets Ignite Our Dreams

And Make Us Think About What is Possible

A visible light image of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. Courtesy of NASKIES, CC-BY-SA-3.0

A visible light image of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. Courtesy of NASKIES, CC-BY-SA-3.0

What price do you put on stimulating the imagination and scientific interest in someone? I don’t know about you, but I think it’s priceless. Certain events in our history are enough to get us dreaming about the infinite possibilities that lie out there among the other planets and the distant stars and galaxies. Or course, those events did cost something in terms of money and human effort. There’s always a price, a cost, a tradeoff. The payback is knowledge, which comes with both costs, plus the chance to look at places we’ve never seen before. That’s the essence of exploration.

The New Horizonws team celebrates a successful flyby of Pluto.  Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen in the midst of pandemonium.

The New Horizons team celebrates a successful flyby of Pluto. Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

New Horizons cost around $700 million, and has certainly inspired people around the world. Worth it? I’d say so. We are supposed to be learning about our universe, using the brains and intellect that evolved along with our bodies. This mission just showed us a world that was long seen only as a point of light. It’s now a place with mountains and craters and icy “continents”, and a “plasma tail’ and a thin atmosphere, and a slew of moons.

Apollo 11 image; Buzz Aldrin's bootprint on the Moon. Courtesy NASA.

Apollo 11 image; Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint on the Moon. Courtesy NASA.

Of course, many people have been celebrating the Apollo 11 landings and the first people to walk on the Moon. The entire Apollo program cost around $25 billion, and its scientific and cultural returns are priceless. We ALL learned something about the Moon, just as we’re all learning something about Pluto with New Horizons. And, about Mars with the missions there. And, about the other planets of the solar system from the many spacecraft we’ve sent out.

We live in an evolving solar system. It hasn’t stopped changing since its formation some 4.5 billion years ago. We’re part of the system, and only recently have we learned to look with scientific eyes at the places that exist in our little part of the galaxy. We’ve learned amazing things through our explorations using both ground-based and space-based instruments. And there’s more out there, if we’re not afraid to go for it.

Is knowing what we know about the solar system and the rest of the universe worth less than the cost of a football stadium? Is it worth less to you personally than the cost of a boutique coffee or a slice of pizza? Is it less important than buying a senator or a whole roomful of them at bargain basement prices? What price do you put on integrity and honesty, scientific curiosity, the urge to KNOW how all this universe works?

You know what MY answer is. Spending money on such exploration benefits people; it creates jobs, stimulates economies and careers, at the same time it teaches us our place in the cosmos. I’d say we got a hell of a deal when we started sending spacecraft out to explore the cosmos. They’re part of us, they’re our eyes and ears on the cosmos, and they are showing us what the universe is made of. Pretty darned good expenditure and use of our time, talents, and energies.

What will we explore next? Exoplanets? There’s more news about those coming soon. How about distant galaxies born in the fires of the first half billion years of the cosmos? Coming up with James Webb Space Telescope. Want to know more about the first stars? Our multi-wavelength observatories in space and on the ground are on the case. Each one of those projects is made up of equipment, sure. But, it’s the people who do the hard work of building, testing, thinking, and sharing the universe with the rest of us. THAT should be worth something to you as you gaze at the stars, look at the pretty pictures, and dream of exploring the cosmos. Shouldn’t it?

Helping Exploration to Uwingu

Crowd-Funding Exploration

I was talking to my friend Alan Stern the other day. We both worked at the same lab at the University of Colorado and had the same advisor when we were in grad school.  If you don’t know about Alan, Google him sometime. He’s packed a lot of experience into his life, and is probably one of the most energetic and forward-thinking people I know.  Even talking quietly over his mobile phone so he wouldn’t wake up the rest of his family, Alan radiated energy.

So, what’s got Alan excited these days?  One word: Uwingu.  It’s the Swahili word for “the sky”, and the name of a new project called the Uwingu Fund  that he and a group of friends started. What the team wants to do is crowd-source space exploration and science research that is deserving of funding, but isn’t getting it in these days of austere budgets. “We want this to be a “gate fund” for space,” he said.  “There’s nothing else like it. We’re selling something of broad interest around the world and the dollars will go toward space exploration.  We’re hoping to do something transformational.”

Uwingu Fund lets people donate money in exchange for “perks”.  The funds they share will be used in as a “private sector” funding mechanism that could bring millions or tens of millions of dollars annually for space projects of all kinds.  For example, it will provide grants to people who propose meritorious projects in space exploration, space research, or space education. As Alan puts it some of the money will be used to fund people as projects. “It’s a very different way to fund research from the past. It’s a very 21st-century model,” he said. “It will be peer-reviewed, just as other science grant proposals are. We’ll have review panels to help select the deserving projects.”

The idea was seeded by Alan’s experiences at NASA, his involvement with the New Horizons mission (which will reach Pluto in three years), and, more recently, by a series of “bake-sale” and “car wash” and “shoe shining” type fundraisers he spurred.  “People would come up to me at those events and ask me, ‘what can I do to help?’,” Alan mused.

He pointed out what many of us have known for years but somehow gets missed by the media and the political elites: that many, many people across all walks of life ARE interested in space exploration and science, and they want to be a part of it.  Maybe they don’t all get to be astronauts, but they get to know that something they contributed to is making science good. For example, many folks have their names embedded on a microchip that went to Mars onboard on the Curiosity rover.  I sent MY name in, and it gives me a little frisson of wonder each time I think about it.  And, as I pointed out in another entry here, it only cost me $7.00 in taxes for that whole mission. Not a bad return on investment, and a heck of a lot healthier (mentally and physically) than a deep-fried meal at a fast-food joint.

I like Alan’s idea and I’ll be getting involved. As I mentioned above, Uwingu Fund is offering perks, just as other crowd-sourcing sites do. And, I’ll happily take a perk. But, for me, the biggest perk will be seeing some worthwhile science get funded that would have otherwise been ignored in the science-unfriendly political environment we face today. We need science to move forward, both as individuals and as a species.  And Uwingu Fund is a way to help that happen. It’s is new, it’s just getting started, but I do think that the group behind it will achieve great things and help others to do the same. So, check it out and get in on moving us forward.