Martin Still is an expert in endings. At 10,500 meters, onboard a Virgin Atlantic flight from San Francisco to London, he describes blasts that rip apart matter, explosions that destroy stellar systems and cataclysmic events that shake the cosmos. The NASA astrophysicist makes the prospect of astronomical obliteration sound exciting, although a conversation about any kind of destruction is not one most passengers prefer on a transatlantic trip.
For a man obsessed with entities long-since expired, it seems cruelly fitting that Still, whom I sat with on that flight two years ago, may soon see the death of his own NASA program: managing the Kepler space telescope, which orbits the sun with a mission to find exoplanets near other stars. Although Congress narrowly passed a bill avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff on January 1, the agreement only staves off massive decreases in spending until March when legislators must revisit the deal. NASA faces an 8.3 percent cut for the fiscal year and additional cuts over the next eight years, according to the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).
For now, Still works as a deputy director at NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Kepler Science Office in Mountainview, Calif. The organization was designed to detect potentially habitable planets in our Milky Way galaxy. So far it’s found 2,740 possible exoplanets that fit the bill, and recent discoveries have the science community buzzing about the odds of life elsewhere.
Yet the astrophysicist wasn’t always focused on discovering new life. Still spent his early career at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., watching stars die at the edge of the universe. Most stars greet death casually, gradually cooling and petering out of existence with little protest. But larger stars become unstable when their cores run out of fuel, exploding and expelling elemental bursts of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The storm of energy that follows is colossal.
"There's this incredible explosion, this incredible emission of gas and light," Still says. "It's one of the most violent acts in the universe. That's why it's so bright and observable across the stretch of time and space."
A native of the U.K., Still has seen red giants millions of miles across choke and collapse, waking briefly only to spew their outer layers before shrinking into black holes. NASA was once a shining star among federal research programs, but the agency’s annual budget is collapsing, too—at its lowest in four years at just $17.7 billion. Americans spend more on pet food each year. The reduction in funding slows progress on a host of missions like those that launched Still’s career more than 15 years ago.
Early on Still was tasked with keeping vigil, with recording the death throes of the astral beasts he studied. The scientist has bore witness to the final moments of more than 100 stars, although these fiery orbs have, in actuality, been dead for eons by the time Still lays eyes on them. The photons emitted by such explosions, traveling at the speed of light, or about 300,000 kilometers per second, can still take billions of years to reach Earth, covering distances so vast it exceeds human comprehension.
"There are things in the way, blocking the light coming from the black hole. You can see these notches and nicks in the (light) spectrum—each one of these nicks is actually a galaxy," he says. "Black holes are one window into what the universe was like 12 billion years ago."
All this talk about astrophysics momentarily distracts Still from the jetliner’s precarious position above the Atlantic, but it doesn’t take long for him to remember that he’s but a short fall from the ocean. Still buckles his seat belt. The flight attendant brings food sealed in compact, plastic containers. He eats and tries to sleep, but failing that, he tells the story of another journey.