JWST: How to turn a telescope into a football

12 07 2011

This week saw the US House  of Representatives Appropriations Committee put the James Webb Space Telescope on the chopping block. The Republican lead committee criticized the project for being over budget and “plagued” by poor management. An independent review had earlier suggested it was underfunded for a number of years. Who’s right?

There are no easy answers. So it’s probably worthwhile to examine some of the details about the capability of JWST versus the Hubble Space Telescope first. The key point I want to make is that JWST isn’t simply a big and better version of Hubble – it’s way more sophisticated and capable.

Starting with the most simple statistic first, JWST has a 6.5m diameter mirror, while Hubble is a mere 2.4m. But more criticially, JWST’s mirror is made of hexagonal segments that will be unfolded once it is launched (which is slightly scary when you  think about it, but the engineers are adamant it will all work). Then there’s the length of the two telescopes, 13.2m compared to 22m: to put this in perspective the shield that protects JWST from the Sun’s glare is essentially the same length as a Bombardier Q400 aircraft!

But the key facts about JWST are really the science it can do. Not only will it be able to image 15 times the area that Hubble can, it is also optimized to see at mid to near infra-red wavelengths, beyond the limit of human seeing. This will allow it to see the very first galaxies to form in our Universe – something that Hubble can never do. It will help us unravel some of the mysteries of how stars and planets form, and even uncover pieces of the puzzle of how the elements and compounds necessary for life are distributed.

So if the JWST is so much better than Hubble, how come it’s on the chopping block?  The need to repair Hubble’s flawed mirror lead to some of the most dangerous space-walks ever undertaken by astronauts. The total cost of the Hubble mission is now somewhere around $15B, and in that light, JWST looks peachy cheap at $6.5B.

In short, if you want to get some real concessions from the opposition then you put something big and juicy on the table. Knowing full well that the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science sub-committee Chair (Barbara Mikulski) is a strong supporter of JWST since she comes from Maryland, home of the JWST Goddard Space Flight Center, the Republicans are loading their throwing arm with what is essentially the most expensive civillian scientific project in the US.

It would be nice to think this was just political brinkmanship (the JWST budget is but 1/2000th of the budget deficit!). But even before we consider the loss of the scientific discovery that would result, estimates suggest 2,000 high tech jobs are potentially on the line.

On top of these concerns, many astronomers recall the cancellation of the Superconduting Super Collider (SSC). At almost 90 km long it would have exceeded the capability of the LHC at CERN. The US could have maintained leadership in subatomic physics but the government chose not to. The reasons for cancellation were very similar to those we’re hearing about the JWST today: “cost overruns”, “poor management”, “need to cut spending”. If he US was prepared to give up leadership in the past, a repeat of history would be perversely unpoetic.

JWST is overbudget. Faced with what an external review essentially felt was underfunding, the managers of the project postponed non-critical work until it became critical. Budget safety margins weren’t as big as they should be. But the key fact is there are no significant technical barriers to launch. Despite all the perceived problems the mission has progressed. And let’s face it, how many space missions actually wind up flying on time? Anyone remember how many years late the original Space Shuttle was?

The next few days of negotiations between the various warring fraction of the US government will be interesting. It would be fun to be fly on the wall and listen to whether even a smidgeon of the science at stake is mentioned. Seems unlikely. So I’d like all the people involved just to take a look at the following movie about what actually motivates humans to do what they do. It isn’t chasing the mighty dollar, regardless of what economists might think.

The past few days have left Cosmoboy in a deep and dark place about humanity’s future and what seems to actually matter to anyone.

Space is a plateau that science and technology has allowed us to reach. If we turn our backs on science and technology, and reaching out to discover the unknown, progress will become a luxury of the past.

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5 responses

12 07 2011
Michael Merrifield

“Over budget” and “under fund” are surely just two sides of the same coin. From a politician’s perspective, the pertinent question is why the budget was initially set too low. You can forgive them for suspecting that initial estimates were deliberately low-balled to get the project started, then leading to a series of requests for just a “little more” to finish off the project and not waste the expenditure so far. Indeed, the budget profile for JWST is entirely consistent with such an interpretation. We then have little credibility when we claim that the end is finally in sight for just a few billion (even though it really is this time!), so really should not be too surprised if the politicians are irritated to the point where they finally pull the plug.

Unfortunately, we now have to face the consequences, both past present and future: in the past, the ballooning budget of JWST has squeezed out a depressing number of other exciting NASA science programmes; in the present, we may have to face up to not even getting JWST in turn for those sacrifices; and in the future, how much credibility do we have when we seek funds for the next exciting idea for “only” a billion or two?

12 07 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

The “over budget” vs “underfunded” debate is worthy of an episode of “Yes Minister!” I’ve seen Deputy Ministers hint that the best way to cancel a project is to deliberately put it into fiscal trouble first and then cancellation is merely warranted because of the perception of poor management. Indeed, fiscal strangling is the easiest way to make any project look poorly managed.

The irony for me is that pretty much all “big” space projects seem to overrun by huge amounts. It isn’t just a problem with telescopes. Indeed if we look at the ISS that is far, far worse than JWST and yet continues to soak up funds for mediocre scientific payback. NASA helped the ISS survive by ensuring that workpages ended up in as many districts of representatives as they could – making it essentially impossible to kill – despite a price tag that some analysts put at over $100B (the FY2000 overrun alone was $5B).

Let’s not even talk about military projects, B-1 overrun anyone?

I agree that it looks like costs were underestimated at the very beginning. I recall people joking that NGST was underestimated by a factor of “n”. But the contractors who build this stuff appear to be complicit in the undercosting game as well, and lets face it, that’s where the dollars go in the end and then the astronomers get the blame.

I can’t argue on the point that if every project pitched by the community costs several billion, the field is doomed. But I genuinely feel there are some large projects worth doing, and at least the world community is slowly working towards the viewpoint that “world observatories” are the only way to fund these things. Does this mean we’re becoming intellectually bankrupt and can only think along “bigger is better” lines? I don’t know. There are ways to do pieces of the science that say the JWST or SKA can do for fractions of the cost, but these are very focused facilities that are essentially experiments. I like a research ecosystem that values both.

15 07 2011
Two Dishes

Having one cutting edge visible light telescope seems non-negotiable. How can we not have the next version of Hubble? I wouldn’t blame just the GOP (losers) though. Anyone who allowed money to go into the completely superfluous Intl Space Station should take some heat too, including Bill Clinton. Pork in Space, man.

BTW, my girlfriend is miffed that you guys thought of a Eco + Physics blog before we did. If we had one though I kind of doubt she would post to it much.

Also BTW, found your site while looking for Bay of Fundy pics for our honeymoon plans.

Thanks!

15 07 2011
ecogirlcosmoboy

The ISS is a scary story. But it does go to show, if you want to keep something funded, just make sure every congressperson and senator has some kind of interest in keeping it going right in their backyard… Jobs are the most powerful motivator in politics.

Fundy is awesome! Amazing physics, ecology and landscape 🙂

18 07 2011
Doug

“How can we not have the next version of Hubble?”

Well, um, I guess the same way we can not have the next version of FNAL (Fermilab National Accelerator). We had a chance, with SSC, and we blew it off.

The argument to preserve JWST has to be better than just some handwaving salute to American exceptionalism.

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