The James Webb space telescope (JWST) is the next generation of NASA telescopes designed to look in the Infra red to the earliest structure of the universe. Quite simply it’s a triumph of engineering, and the results are expected to be phenomenal and will greatly increase our understanding of the universe.

However like every other programme it faces stiff competition from politicians. The trouble started, like most NASA projects with a spiraling budget. Initial estimates had a launch date of 2007 with a budget of $1.6 Billion. Now with a launch date of 2018-2020+ at the earliest the cost now stands at over $8bn the US congress has seen fit to propose a termination of the project. With the remaining funds to be stopped, not only that but NASA wouldn’t be able to use the costs to pay for anything else. They would lose it completely.

What always seems to screw up programmes like this is the budget and schedule. Budgets and schedules are going to be notoriously difficult to project for something of this scale. What engineers and scientists have been asked to do has never been tried before. They are not simply launching another telescope. Unlike the other observatories this one won’t be orbiting around the earth, JWST is designed to operate 930,000 miles from the Earth (4 times the distance from the earth to the moon) meaning it MUST work first time.

While there is a lot of merit in keeping this mission alive the main concern is with NASA’s already shrinking budget and the beginning of the SLS Programme, NASA may simply not have enough money left to do everything it wants. NASA has to decide whether to continue with a telescope that has most of the mission hardware assembled and could in all hope be operating in 7 years. or Cancel it and lose everything. Much has been said about the plan to scrap the telescope, while the original house bill does effectively kill the telescope dead (Their proposed bill funds a whopping $0 to JWST) the Senate announced that they would provide just under $530 million to the programme.  Supporters leapt as it seemed that Webb was saved from the scrapheap. However both chambers need to hammer out a final bill, so for the time being it seems Webb is being killed by Congress. Ironic since the namesake of the telescope was a man who fought Congress at every step to preserve and increase the funding for the most important programme NASA ever undertook, that of getting a man from the Earth to the Moon.

It is interesting to note that Budget overruns happen all the time, Hubble, arguably the greatest science platform ever created had its cost jump from $1.1bn to $6.1bn (2011 money) and that’s including the missions and equipment needed to actually get it working (a luxury Webb would be without)

Responding to the ongoing battle the Planetary Science Institute  released this open letter:

The recently released NRC Planetary Decadal Survey (“Visions and
Voyages”), with input from the planetary community, detailed specific
priorities for the next decade of solar system exploration. This
carefully laid out plan is under threat from cost overruns by the
NASA James Webb Space Telescope. The NRC Planetary Decadal Survey did
not cite JWST as a priority for planetary science.

JWST has, however, been a priority in the NRC Astrophysics Decadal
Surveys. When JWST was ranked as the top major initiative for NASA
astrophysics in the 2001 NRC Astronomy Decadal Survey, it was estimated
to cost $1B and launch by 2011. NASA has now spent $3.5B on JWST and it
is now projected to cost a minimum of $8.7B for a launch no earlier
than late 2018. As a result, JWST’s cost increases have outstripped the
resources of the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Astrophysics
Division, and NASA leadership has now declared JWST an “agency
priority.” Resources of other NASA programs, including the Agency’s
Planetary Sciences Division within the Science Mission Directorate,
are now threatened to cover current and future JWST cost overruns.

Citing these overruns, the House zeroed out JWST from NASA’s 2012

We believe it is time to have an open debate on JWST and its value
across all targeted communities, from planetary, Earth science, and
heliophysics to human spaceflight. Congress needs to be informed about
the impact of the choices facing it.

We individually and together reject the premise that JWST must be
restored at all costs. We further stand by the following positions:

(1) There are important national priorities in space beyond the goals
of JWST that as a country we cannot afford to sacrifice.
(2) If Congress believes JWST is so important that it must be restored,
then Congress should commit to adding funds to the NASA budget
sufficient to cover JWST’s expenses from here forward, recognizing
that it may well cost more than $8.7B.
(3) Without additional funds to NASA, JWST should not be restored
unless and until an open science community assessment is made of
the value of what will be gained and what will be lost across the
entire NASA science portfolio.
(4) If Congress cancels JWST, it is important to preserve the NASA
astrophysics budget and mandate the formulation of a plan to retain
US astrophysics leadership.

With the Sentate bill set to go to a floor vote before a final compromise for a house vote, then finally it will pass into law. However even though the senate bill provides the funding, it is not independent of the overall NASA budget. NASA will take a hit in funding and still be expected to pay for Webb and its other programmes out of a smaller pot. While I would love to see Webb finally working, I think the risk to other programmes is too high for a telescope with such a short lifespan. Only with appropriations seperate from the overall NASA budget can Webb survive.

The fight for Webb is far from over.


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