As a child of the Apollo generation, I remember the excitement of the lunar missions. Sitting in front of the family TV and watching Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the Moon, returning to Earth, and splashing down in the ocean was a time when wonder and science first came together for me. The science of space—astronomy, astrophysics, planetary geology—continues to spark the imagination and enthusiasm of kids and adults alike.
Completing big, bold, and difficult scientific endeavors—whether landing on the Moon or the more modern and timely development of a next-generation telescope—requires the long-term scientific vision to anticipate and invest in such projects before anyone else is thinking about them, as well as the commitment to see them through. For instance, the groundbreaking Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), described in the feature article, The Widest, Deepest Images of a Dynamic Universe, will not enter into full operations until 2023, but Lawrence Livermore had been contributing its expertise to the project since early in the undertaking. Building on our deep experience in constructing complex optical systems such as the National Ignition Facility, we are helping to build the largest and most advanced camera ever assembled, one that will be an integral part of LSST.
This effort, although still in progress, has already spun off other technological advances. For example, Livermore researchers have applied the technology allowing LSST’s 27-foot-diameter primary mirror to gaze into space to create tiny CubeSat satellites, each no bigger than a stack of books, which now gaze from space to Earth. Once operational, LSST will give us a wider, deeper look at the sky than any ground-based telescope can, enabling investigations into dark matter and dark energy and the structure of our solar system, and even detecting potential collisions with Earth-crossing objects. To develop the necessary technology for LSST or myriad other projects that fulfill the Laboratory’s missions and the nation’s needs, we must first lay the scientific groundwork for that technology. Such investigations can take years or even decades. Fortunately, Livermore researchers also excel at finding opportunities to make the most of these research endeavors. For instance, many of the same tools and techniques can be used to advance both cosmochemistry and nuclear forensics studies, and advances in one area can feed into the other. As described in the research highlight, Unlocking the History of the Solar System, Livermore’s considerable nuclear forensics expertise is currently helping us gain new insights on the formation of our solar system.
The Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program is critical to investigating and understanding the fundamental science that underpins further technology and engineering advances. As with the LSST and CubeSat technology spinoffs, some LDRD projects can take us to places we hadn’t initially imagined. For example, Livermore researchers, with LDRD funding, have developed an array of micromirrors with unprecedented speed and precision that is attracting interest from research fields as disparate as astronomy and self-driving cars (see Guiding Laser Light with Thousands of Tiny Mirrors).
To deliver on our missions—and to maintain our leadership in worldwide science—we not only need to anticipate science and technology needs but also help ensure that we foster and sustain a talented, passionate, and diverse pool of scientific and engineering talent to perform the work. Just as we must lay the fundamental scientific groundwork for our technological applications, the Laboratory must lay its groundwork for future workforce needs by helping to spark and build an interest in science in young people through outreach efforts (see Laboratory Outreach Programs Inspire the Next Generation). Through student field trips to our Discovery Center and the Fun with Science programs, we hope to provide kids with their own “Apollo moments,” where they can connect with and be inspired by the work we do—and hopefully see themselves being part of this science in the future. Finally, through our teacher training and summer student programs we aim to stoke the flames further.
Our people are the real strength of the Laboratory. With them, the sky’s the limit.