Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Scary, And Yet...

You're all familiar with the Hubble Telescope, that marvel of engineering and science that has created some of the most spectacular and iconic space images of the past decades.
It's about to die, not from some catastrophe, but merely from old age and lack of life support. Now that the shuttle program is terminated, no one much feels like flying up to it to do maintenance and repair.
We would be blind to beauty, except for something that has happened that is at once creepy and wondrous:
The National Science Foundation has just revealed the existence of not one, but two pristine, Hubble-class space telescopes, still in their original wrappings, in a warehouse in Rochester, N.Y. The pair was originally built for the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency in charge of spy satellites, to look down at Earth rather than up into space. But the NRO has moved on to bigger and better instruments, and decided to hand the telescopes over. "It just blew me a way when I heard about this," says Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee On Astrophysics and Astronomy. "I knew nothing about it."
Two points to notice here:
The Hubble makes your 50x military grade binoculars look like the magnifying glass they used to put in Cracker Jack boxes. Imagine one of those pointed down at you sunbathing nude in your backyard. Now imagine a telescope that puts the Hubble to shame. That's what the NRO had in a warehouse, waiting to be deployed.
Second, note that they never deployed them because they found an improved way of spying on us!
Let that sink in for a minute. Despite the obvious budget concerns-- why are we holding not one but two perfectly good telescopes in a warehouse in Rochester, NY never to be deployed because they became obsolete? How much were they and where in the budget do they show up, if at all?-- our government is handing down the best telescope we've ever invented, from a spy ring to our science division.
Why wasn't that working the other way around? I mean, I get that you can't be too public with your intelligence gathering, but on the other hand, science is important to our security, too, and particularly space. That's why NASA even exists in the first place! You could, for example, publicly misrepresent the level of technology on the telescope, and gift it from NASA to the NRO.
I know, the military gets the best candy, even if like a goose fatted for pate, it has to be rammed into its gullet, but come on, Congress. This is science. This is (mostly) good for us.