Back in the day (ten years ago), I served on a NASA panel charged with developing a long-term roadmap for NASA’s astrophysics missions. At the time there were complaints from Congress and the Office of Management and the Budget that NASA was asking for lots of things, but without any overarching strategy. Whether that was true or not, we recognized the need to make hard choices and put forward a coherent plan. The result was the Beyond Einstein roadmap. We were ambitious, but reasonable, we thought, and the feedback we received from Congress and elsewhere was generally quite positive.
Hahahahaha. In the end, almost nothing that we proposed is actually being carried out. Our roadmap had different ingredients (to mix a metaphor): two large “facility-class” missions comparable to NASA’s Great Observatories, three more moderate “Einstein Probes” to study dark energy, inflation, and black holes, and more speculative “Vision missions” for further down the road. The Einstein Probes have long since fallen by the wayside, although the dark-energy mission might find life via one of the telescopes donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office. If we don’t have the willpower/resources to do the moderate-sized missions, you might suspect that the facility-class missions are even more hopeless, and you’d be right.
But never fear! Word out of Europe (although still not official, apparently) is that the ESA has prioritized missions to study the “hot and energetic universe” and the “gravitational universe.” These map pretty well onto Constellation-X and LISA, the two facility-class missions we recommended pursuing in Beyond Einstein. The former would have been an X-ray telescope, while the latter would be a gravitational-wave observatory. Unfortunately the likely launch date for an ESA gravitational-wave mission isn’t until 2034, which is like forever. Fortunately, China has expressed interest in such a project, which might move things along.
For anyone following the news of last year’s Higgs discovery, it’s a familiar story. Here in the US we had a big particle accelerator planned, the SSC, which was canceled in 1993. That allowed CERN time and money to build the LHC, which eventually found the Higgs (and who knows what else it will find in the future). The US makes big plans, loses nerve, and Europe (or someone else) picks up the pieces.
Personally, I could not possibly care less which country gets the credit for scientific discoveries. If we someday map out the spacetime geometry around a black hole using data from a gravitational-wave observatory, whether it was launched by Europe or the US or China or India or Dubai matters to me not one whit. But I do want to see it launched by somebody. And the health of global science is certainly better off when the US is an active and energetic participant — the more resources and more competition we see in the field, the more benefits for everybody. Let’s hope we find a way for US science to shift back into high gear, so that we are players rather than merely spectators in this amazing game.