James Webb Space Telescope

By Risa Wechsler | July 7, 2011 8:14 am

Sean mentioned yesterday that the next generation space telescope JWST is at risk. In a bit more detail, JWST has been cut in the House appropriations bill:

$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

In all, the House appropriations bill cuts 1.6 billion dollars from the NASA budget. The game is not over yet — the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of NASA will consider this bill today, and the full Appropriations committee will meet again to consider the final bill on Wednesday — and of course the Senate will have its own bill. But this is obviously a very ominous sign for NASA astrophysics in general.

JWST is a 6.5 meter IR-optimized telescope, which has been scheduled to launch in 2018. It is certainly true that it has suffered from numerous cost overruns, and has essentially eaten the rest of the NASA astrophysics program. However, nearly all the technical hurdles have now been overcome. And the science reach of JWST is spectacular. It is now the only observatory-class mission planned to operate once the current Great Observatories (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra) reach their end of life. JWST has been the highest priority for NASA of the Decadal Surveys and essentially every other study commissioned by the field.

Hubble Space Telescope has given us amazing views of the Universe, back to about a billion years after the big bang. However, it has reached its limits there — JWST would allow us to see well into this first billion years, to view the formation of the first stars, galaxies, and black holes, and to study in detail how radiation from these objects reionized the Universe. There are no other planned missions that will allow us to observe this earliest stage of galaxy formation with this level of detail. JWST would also allow us to observe the chemical composition of planets outside the solar system, and to image the disks around stars as they begin planet formation.

It is hard to overstate the impact of HST on astronomy over the last two decades, and in particular on the public’s engagement with astronomy and science in general. There is just something incredibly inspiring and awesome about space-based observatories and the images they produce, that are unmatched by ground-based telescopes. JWST is a natural successor to Hubble in this mission: it has tremendous potential to be a vehicle of wonder. In addition to the science that would be lost, the funding losses to US astronomy, and the set back of our research progress, this loss to the public inspiration and engagement in scientific discovery could be one of the most substantial hits if JWST does not go forward.

I encourage all who are concerned about the next decade of astronomy to contact your representatives and senators as soon as possible. Termination of JWST would reduce the strength and visibility of the US science program as a whole, its impacts would be felt far beyond astrophysics. Killing JWST now also substantially threatens US credibility as an international partner, and sends the message that the US is just not interested in scientific leadership in major projects.

More at the New York Times, the Nature News Blog, Sky and Telescope, and Bad Astronomy. House press release here. The AAS will be releasing a statement later today. Thanks to Garth Illingworth for some useful background.

The case for JWST from a fan at the Vlog brothers: “I do not want to live in a world where we only focus on suck, and never think about awesome.”

  • Tony Verow MD

    If this goes through, it would be a staggering loss for America. It also would confirm for me that this country is headed down the road to irreversible decline. The money being discussed is a pittance in the federal budget, but would permanently axe the careers of many academics, graduate students, etc. Compare and contrast the $$$ that this would save with the trillion (yes, trillion) dollars that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US taxapyer to date.

    I remember when Hubble was going through similar teething problems in the early 80’s. At the time there were similar attempts to kill it….what a disaster that would have been !

  • Anon

    Sorry, but JWST has eaten up everything! for example, because of it the US is not longer part of LISA, or almost anything else for that matter… No doubts the works of JWST will be fantastic, but you cannot poorly manage a project, destroy all other ideas, and then expect to claim victory without a scratch… it’s just wrong…

  • Inon

    Over the last 10 years everything (space satellites) has been transitioning from cash cow to fixed price contracts. Management and flexibility are the first things to suffer on fixed price contracts. Eventually the aerospace community will adjust and think more commercially and efficiently.

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  • Tom

    Not knowing anything about this, but being an advocate of science, it seems to me that IF this bill scuttling this project is not passed, something needs to change in the project. I understand that these projects are cutting edge – but the extent of cost overruns is simply not excusable.
    Inon – I used to work for a defence contractor, and am (sadly) familiar with fixed price contracts. The 2 huge problems with these is that 1) we get politicians trying to steer business to their constituent state, and 2) contracts are intentionally low-balled in order to win them, with the implicit understanding that once you are years into it, it is cost prohibitive to switch.

  • Phil

    Politicians are corrupt and greedy and will only listen to people who fund their campaigns. They do not care about science or the future of America. They care about money and getting re-elected. The JWST accomplishes neither.

  • Marty

    The link for contacting congressional representatives seems to be broken…

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Letters to Senators and my Rep. are en route.

  • Jennifer

    The link is just mistyped, it is this: http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

    and I just wrote to all four of my congresspeople. I agree with the statement on their priorities, but supporting science does affect their re-election chances, at least with me.

    Cheers to the CV bloggers for bringing it to our attention.

  • Mr. G

    Dear Senator/Representative,

    Please apply my enclosed check to the JWST. I’, encouraging all my family, friends and co-workers send send their own checks.

    Together, we can get this done.

    Thank you.

    Sincerely;

    Putting My Own Money Where There Isn’t Enough of Everyone Else’s. Because it’s that Important!

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  • TedL

    That riduculous video blog excerpt killed any remaining desire I have that continued funding for the JWST is approved.

    Does anyone know — What is the probability that the JWST will reach orbit and malfunction such that it is worthless? There must have been a fault analysis and I’m curious as to what the failure risk is.

  • Torbj√∂rn Larsson, OM

    It is bad; I like cosmology and astrobiology both.

    However I like the description of “teething problems” as it injects perspective and hope.

    Killing JWST now also substantially threatens US credibility as an international partner, and sends the message that the US is just not interested in scientific leadership in major projects.

    I don’t get this, how should it be unpacked?

    Is the 2nd part supposed to imply the 1st? But it wouldn’t work that way, since the measure of an international partner is how interested, large and robust they are regards partnership. JWST is, perhaps unfortunately, not such an effort.

    Not being privy to the workings of the astronomical society, a humbled US should naively be seen as a potential future partner, as it can’t go at it alone anymore.

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  • Magoonski

    Hey everyone don’t just contact your own congress members, contact the House Appropriations Commitee as well.

    http://appropriations.house.gov/About/Members/

    http://appropriations.house.gov/Subcommittees/Subcommittee/?IssueID=34794

  • Magoonski

    Apparentally, only our legislatures are supposed to talk to the committee. Of course, that makes no sense considering the interest of science transcends all borders state and international alike. Besides I doubt my legislaters would even get enough calls about this to warrant their attention in time.

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