Don’t kill the Webb!


in Bombs and rockets, Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Space and flight

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Blog index >> Space travel

. July 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm
Matt July 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm

What’s interesting is that 2 years of funding the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan costs roughly the same as NASA has since its inception in 1958.

I realize that comparing anything to those quagmires makes the thing being compared seem amazingly cheap, but still I find that stunning.

Milan July 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm

The costs of war make everything else seem like a good deal by comparison. Still, it is a useful comparison when it comes to the spending of the same government on major projects.

. July 14, 2011 at 10:42 am

astroengine writes “This could be considered “strike two” for the deeply troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Last week, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee made the recommendation that the advanced infrared space telescope be cancelled. On Wednesday, the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee has approved the subcommittee’s plan. The project may not be dead yet — the 2012 budget still has to be voted on my the House and Senate — but it sure is looking grim for “Hubble’s replacement.””

dp July 14, 2011 at 10:43 am

They should rename it the Ronald Reagan Space Telescope. No Republican would vote to kill it off.

. July 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Science 15 July 2011:
Vol. 333 no. 6040 pp. 275-276
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6040.275
U.S. Science Budget

House Panel Would Kill Webb Space Telescope

Early last month, the auditorium of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, was abuzz with chatter about the scientific promise of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). From its vantage point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, the telescope is supposed to provide the first-ever view of the cosmic dawn, an early epoch in the history of the universe when the first stars were born.

Although it was understood that JWST’s projected launch date of 2018 could slip, nobody at the meeting harbored any real doubts that the telescope would eventually be placed in orbit. After all, much of the instrument’s hardware, including its 6.5-meter foldable mirror that would unfurl in space, had already been built.

But last week, their rosy view of the future turned dark. A House spending panel eliminated funding for it after expressing its frustration with the telescope’s escalating cost—from $1 billion to $6.5 billion—and what legislators regarded as poor management by NASA. The $3 billion already spent on the project offered no immunity from cancellation.

The community has reacted with surprise and dismay. “Killing the project now would be a devastating blow,” says astrophysicist Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California. Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the JWST Advisory Council, says, “Termination of the project is inconsistent with the substantial progress” that it has already made.

. September 15, 2011 at 10:32 pm

James Webb Space Telescope Project Saved by U.S. Senate

NASA’s endangered James Webb Space Telescope project has survived a funding vote in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

In July, the House Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill, which allotted an annual funding of $50.2 billion to the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and related agencies. In a move to restrain spending, it cut the appropriation by 6 percent from fiscal 2011.

. November 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Throwing money into space
A shiny new telescope is crowding out NASA’s other science missions

THE Hubble space telescope, an orbiting observatory launched in 1990 by NASA, America’s space agency, has been one of that agency’s most successful missions since the Apollo moon shots in the 1960s and 1970s. It has produced a string of scientific achievements: confirming that most galaxies have a black hole in the middle; providing a front-row seat for the collision, in 1994, of a comet with the planet Jupiter; and helping to uncover the strange fact that the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating. But beyond the science, it has also been a public-relations hit. Its beautiful images have introduced a generation to the wonders of astronomy.

So in 2002, when the agency considered plans for a successor that would study the universe in infra-red, rather than visible light, would be ready to fly in 2010 and would cost just $2.5 billion, saying “yes” was easy. Nine years later, NASA is regretting that decision. The James Webb space telescope (JWST), as the new machine is called, is still in the workshop, and its launch date has been set back repeatedly (2018 is the latest official estimate). Its cost has gone up to $8.8 billion, a figure that, if history is any guide, could rise still further. Which would be embarrassing at the best of times, but with public-spending cuts looming and NASA’s budget flat for the foreseeable future, it is causing real strains.

In July, irritated by the JWST’s rising costs, the House of Representatives tried to cut $1.9 billion from NASA’s budget for next year, in an attempt to have the project cancelled. On November 1st, after lobbying from the telescope’s defenders (particularly the American Astronomical Society), the Senate passed a bill that restored the telescope’s funding.

. December 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Observing space

SIR – Why did you use the headline “Throwing money into space” (November 12th) for your article on NASA’s new James Webb space telescope (JWST)? The JWST will be an even more powerful successor to the game-changing Hubble telescope, and, as you noted, “few now begrudge the cost” of Hubble. Furthermore, NASA is not “regretting” its decision to build a successor to Hubble. The NASA administrator has made it clear in public statements that launching the JWST is one of the agency’s three priorities.

Nor are the majority of astronomers falling on their swords. Nobody is happy to see rising costs and slipping schedules in big missions, but the implication that the JWST is crowding out other, more important missions, and is going ahead against the wishes of the astronomy community, is just wrong. The JWST was the top-ranked project in the 2000 astronomy Decadal Survey, and a cornerstone of the 2010 astronomy Decadal.

Finally, scientists are not playing “on the fears” of loss of leadership in big science. The fears are real. Not going ahead with the JWST would represent a further dramatic withdrawal from American leadership of world-leading science programmes, such as Hubble. There is no replacement, at least until China decides to demonstrate its superiority in space science.

Garth Illingworth
University of California, Santa Cruz
Former member of the JWST Independent Comprehensive Review Panel

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