With the last Space Shuttle mission ongoing, people are naturally asking what the future of space exploration is going to be. It seems clear that ambitious plans like a manned mission to Mars are a non-starter in the current fiscal climate. That being said, one of the major reasons why such missions are basically off the table is because they are not very useful. It would be very difficult to get human beings to Mars and then return them alive to Earth, but it wouldn’t teach us much about the universe.
By contrast, the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to be the successor to Hubble: one of the most successful scientific instruments of all time. Much of what we know about the universe has been established, confirmed, or refined using data from that instrument. As such, it is saddening to hear rumours that the Webb telescope may be scrapped fur budgetary reasons, if NASA experiences funding cuts of a certain magnitude.
It seems to me that would be a great shame. While the Webb will cost billions of dollars, it will also actively push forward the boundary of human knowledge and give us a better sense of what the universe is like. Launching it is something that humanity ought to do, even if we are experiencing economically difficult times. Basic science is something that builds upon itself, as new data is collected and new experiments are carried out. It is impossible to know in advance what the consequences of some seemingly obscure bit of cosmology or astronomy or physics will be. For instance, who would have predicted that special relativity would one day permit the precise geographic location of inexpensive receivers, using coordinated time signals from satellites (GPS).
For the sake of the important human undertaking of understanding our universe, we should find the money for the Webb.