From the DirectorK. Sembach
Every ten years, the field of astronomy takes a look at the state of the profession and its scientific accomplishments. And just as importantly, it decides how to address the scientific imperatives of the coming decade(s). Astronomy's 2020 decadal survey is upon us and a new generation of engineers, scientists, managers, and advocates will take the lead in establishing a new generation of Great Observatories. Indeed, the input and current planning for flagship missions within the astronomical community is of a scope and maturity not seen in previous decadals. The scientific promise, complexity of development, and requisite funding requirements for flagships demand input of the highest caliber in order for the decadal participants to establish a bold vision for the future of astronomy.
Four flagship mission studies (three if you treat the two ultraviolet/optical successors to Hubble as a single concept on a continuum of scientific capability) were prepared over several years for consideration in the decadal survey; they offer not only credible concepts but highly compelling scientific visions for what could be achieved with appropriate investments and technological innovation. The scientific goals for these flagships are ambitious, and engineers are up to the challenges posed by pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible. The real question is not whether one of these flagships should be selected as the top priority of the decade but whether we have the collective will and individual commitment necessary to realize the potential of all of these flagships. In other words, paraphrasing President Kennedy, the question is not "What can these Great Observatories do for me?," but rather "What can I do for these Great Observatories in service to others?"
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Nancy Grace Roman, who is someone I admire greatly for her service to the astronomical community. Dr. Roman passed from this world a year ago, but her legacy lives on in the Great Observatories and NASA’s science program. Many know her as the "Mother of Hubble," but it is less well known that she was instrumental in establishing the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatories and the International Ultraviolet Explorer—essential precursors to Hubble and its kin. Without those earlier observatories, there probably would not have been a Hubble Space Telescope, or Chandra X-ray Observatory, or Spitzer Space Telescope.
To overlook Dr. Roman's numerous accomplishments as NASA's first chief of astronomy and solar physics, and the challenges she faced as a woman in a field dominated by men at the time, would obscure her legacy and shortchange future leaders of an incredible role model. Without her advocacy and tireless efforts on behalf of the science community, the field of astronomy would surely be different today. We are so very fortunate to have had Dr. Roman and others who came before us establish NASA's Great Observatories in the face of adversity and opposition. Who will be the Nancy Grace Roman of the 2020s, and how will we inspire them to serve the scientific community? What will you do to help them succeed?
Space telescopes are machines of incredible engineering and technical complexity, none more so than NASA's Great Observatories. They take highly skilled teams to develop and operate. When all goes smoothly, people behind the scenes are hardly noticed. When it doesn't, these same dedicated people answer the call to action and diligently work to resolve problems that can at first seem insurmountable. Just as important as engineering prowess and scientific vision are the program management and program advocacy that breathe life into these missions. These activities too are fraught with complexity and nuance, occurring in large part hidden from view, or forgotten with time and success.
How easy it is to take for granted that an engineering marvel such as the James Webb Space Telescope should "simply work"! Everyone involved with JWST is doing all they can to make it work, but nothing about this mission is simple. Nor was anything simple about previous Great Observatories, each with its own peculiarities and challenges. None would have succeeded had it not been for leaders and teams of people dedicated to science and service. And so too it is for JWST and must be for future flagships if astronomy is to flourish. JWST has a great team behind the scenes, and will be a scientific juggernaut when launched in 2021. Whenever the opportunity arises, please join me in recognizing and supporting all involved in this project so their efforts don't remain hidden from view.