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American Astronomical Society Fellow Bethany Johns Breaks Down Our Future in Space: Q+A

Twenty years hence we may look back on July 2011 as zero-hour in the life of American space exploration. Here's a look at what's been cooking this month: * The ion-propelled Dawn spacecraft, which will be the first ever to orbit two asteroids in a...

by Brian Anderson
Jul 20 2011, 12:00pm

Twenty years hence we may look back on July 2011 as zero-hour in the life of American space exploration. Here’s a look at what’s been cooking this month:

So it's no sleep for Bethany Johns, the 2010-2011 the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society. The AAS is known for their scrupulous decadal surveys, where scientists (who are members of AAS) work on the Space Studies Board convene to assess and prioritize long-term goals and projects.

Johns is currently pushing for full-scale government implementation of the recommendations put forth in the most recent survey, “New Worlds, New Horizons” for Astronomy and Astrophysics involves countless hours beating feet around Capitol Hill in addition to writing the Washington column in the AAS's newsletter and a chapter of the annual R&D budget book of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. Oh, she's also wrapping up her dissertation on galactic positron annihilation.

Here she weighs in on the state of NASA, why James Webb must not die, why solar power is not a viable spacecraft fuel source, and why she'll never, ever be caught in space.


It's been a crazy month. What's happening? Is American astronomy having an identity crisis?

I think we've always done well when it comes to technology and space. NASA has always fought between: should we do human exploration? And is it all about science? And there are people who argue that NASA doesn't have a direction. But they do: they're given direction by Congress on what they should be working on. Congress says, You know, work on exploration as well as science!

I think we're making crazy milestones with the JWST, with this new technology and what we'll be able to see. I like the quote from [NASA administrator, Charles] Bolden that says that the next generation of young people working on space won't be going to the moon; they'll be walking on Mars. I think we're doing really great. It's not easy inventing new technology. I think it's important to invest in it, also.

Speaking of, how are you and the AAS responding to the House's slashing JWST funding from the 2012 appropriation bill for Commerce, Justice, and Science?

Our members are very concerned about what will happen with JWST. It was the number one recommendation of the previous decadal survey and it remains the cornerstone of the next decade of astronomical research. We have a lot of people, hours, time, money, and international partners invested in it.

I've been getting calls and emails since the announcement in the press release, so I've been on the Hill making sure that members of Congress realize that the astronomical community is very unique in that we're 100-percent behind this project. If it does not get funded, you're really hurting the whole gamut of astronomy because the JWST covers the beginning of the universe, to where we are now, to extrasolar planets. It will help us study the formation of galaxies, which will help us figure out more about dark energy and dark matter. It will help us understand the formation of stars and planetary systems, like our own. And the origins of life.

It's a huge tool for us. We want to see it built. We came together as a community and said, We really want this telescope.

JWST primary mirrors/NASA

What are its chances, then? Will this thing ever take first light?

Oh, yeah. What's amazing is there's nothing scientific or technologically wrong with the telescope at all. It's just the management structure that was having problems. NASA fixed all the management structure, but of course the science and technology have always been OK.

We're very excited to see it launch and to get the first pieces of data. I don't think it's impossible at all. It's almost finished being built, actually.

So what will this mean for ground-based efforts? Are terrestrial telescopes and observatories still relevant?

Ground and space-based telescopes work together. What the JWST and other large telescopes in space can do—like what the Hubble has done—is discover things! And since time on the telescope is so fiercely competed for you really have to have a great proposal to get time on the Hubble.

So you have the opportunity of using ground-based telescopes to follow up on things that have been discovered. Both work in tandem to collect more data on what's been discovered. Both can look at similar objects. But, of course, you're blocked by the atmosphere—in many wavelengths, like UV. There are limitations to ground-based telescopes, which is why we do put them in space.

Plutonium-238

What else is going on? What's keeping you busy?

One of the issues we're also currently working on is restarting domestic production of plutonium-238. Our largest division is planetary science, and we're working with many other societies, like the American Geophysical Union to have members of Congress understand how important this is for planetary science. This is the only viable fuel source for spacecraft going to the outer planets, or Mars or the moon.

The Mars Science Laboratory, which should be launched in November, is taking up a huge chunk of what's left over. There's only enough plutonium-238 for one more spacecraft to use as a power source. Solar panels are just not an option where there is no sun, or not enough sunlight. Nobody in the world is making it right now. We used to make it. Without restarting production our exploration of the planets will cease. It's a very big deal for our planetary scientists. We're doing a lot on the Hill with this.

We have the facilities to do it. They exist—there just needs to be an initial further investment of funds to get the people and the on-switch to turn on. The Idaho National Lab and Oakridge National Lab are the two places that have the ability to do it.

We've also just released the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey in September, and the Vision & Voyages for Planetary Science came out in March. I'm working to be sure these particular projects are recommendations that are priorities for our community—and that they can get funding. We've got many projects going up in space, and of course we have many ground-based initiatives and also spacecraft that have been proposed for planetary science.

I'm making sure Congress knows what's important to astronomy; that we've come together and created a list of what our community says is important.

Did you watch the launch?

Oh, yes. I'm amazed at the sacrifice and courage of astronauts. I don't have the courage to go out in space. Many people think that because we study space and stars that we'd like to go out there. I don't think I could do that.

I'm amazed at all the engineering that goes into the system, like how we escape earth's gravity, and the skill the astronauts have. It's very bittersweet. You get a bit emotional.

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