Hubble's Successor

By Risa Wechsler | September 6, 2011 5:34 am

My friend and colleague James Bullock, a professor at UC Irvine, has a great editorial up today in the LA Times about the next generation space telescope JWST. JWST is big. And it’s over budget, which makes it especially vulnerable in the current political climate. But it’s damn important. It’s a tool to inspire, a tool to help us write the story of the universe.

Walk through the halls of UC Irvine’s astronomy wing after dinner on a weeknight and you will find roomfuls of young graduate students, crammed into small desks, solving equations, writing computer code and developing innovative ways to analyze data. They do not have to be here. These are people with career options. They are scary-smart, creative and hardworking. Yet they have come here from all over the country and the world to sit in windowless offices and make a fifth of the money they could make back home or up the street. Why? They want to unlock the universe.

The United States is still the scientific light of the world. Ours is the society responsible for discovering humanity’s place in the universe, that we live in a galaxy called the Milky Way, one among billions of other galaxies stretched across the cosmic landscape. A hundred thousand years from now, if humans make it that long, the U.S. will be remembered for this, and historians will point to the immense contribution of the Hubble Space Telescope, with its miraculous visible-light images, the most detailed pictures of the cosmos yet produced by humankind.

Sadly, U.S. scientific leadership is beginning to fade. There is a sense of fear among our leaders that we can’t afford to invest in our future, just the kind of fear that endangers thoughtful debate about big-picture priorities.

One testament to our changing priorities is our commitment to the Hubble telescope as compared to its successor. The Hubble is, in every way, a monument to scientific exploration. Thanks to the Hubble, orbiting 350 miles overhead, we know that the universe began just under 14 billion years go. The age of the cosmos, once believed to be unknowable, is now available at the click of a mouse and has made it into schoolbooks in all 50 states. Astronomers have used the Hubble to determine the chemical makeup of planets that orbit distant stars and to discover dark energy, a mysterious substance propelling the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Many of the graduate students filling astronomy departments at University of California campuses, as well as Caltech and Stanford, have come to the state to explore and analyze terabytes of Hubble data. These data involve complex digital images, created in raw form onboard the orbiting telescope, and then decomposed into precise component colors. The Hubble beams this information to receivers around the world, where it is processed and made available for download. A graduate student working in Irvine can transfer Hubble images to a computer and then develop software to process and analyze the images’ meaning.

The goal is to squeeze information out of the gathered light that will help us discern the size, structure and chemical composition of objects that are almost always too far away for humans to ever hope to visit. The people who do this work are both creative and technically gifted. They must take what the universe provides — a shred of light collected by the Hubble — and discern implication from its signal.
We want these intelligent, dedicated people to live in our cities, to make their discoveries at our universities and to raise their families — the next generation of bright minds — right here.

Read the whole thing here. And then write your Senators and Representatives. JWST, and with it, US scientific leadership, and an amazing opportunity to fill in the contours of the history and physics of our Universe, is really at risk. Very possibly only an outcry of the kind that saved Hubble will be enough to launch Hubble’s successor.

  • Dorothy Gale

    “young graduate students, crammed into small desks”: really “into”?

  • Karthik

    Dorothy — yes, hotbunking basically. I sleep in the drawer while you work, then we switch places. This way we never have to leave the office!


  • James

    “They do not have to be here. These are people with career options. They are scary-smart, creative and hardworking. Yet they have come here from all over the country and the world to sit in windowless offices and make a fifth of the money they could make back home or up the street. Why? They want to unlock the universe.”

    If we don’t fund the JWST, these graduate students will have to exercise their other career options!

    Oh wait, almost all of them will have to do that anyways after they graduate, or maybe after a postdoc or three.

    What’s really at stake, though, is the unlocking of the universe itself! How can we unlock the universe if we don’t fill the windowless offices of the ivory tower with graduate students?

  • Ned

    I’m not from America (many of your online readers are not), so I’m unable to write to my “Senators and Representatives”. Also I’m not sure why the United States must maintain “scientific leadership”. Is this some kind of American patriotic Space Race thing?

  • Toledo McPherson

    Dorothy, I suspect he was referring to a carrel desk, which resembles a sort of booth, thus making “into” a perfectly reasonable preposition.

    I’m compelled to say I found your comment rather tedious, given the wonders of the subject matter.

  • Dirk

    Read the news. The University of California isn’t hiring. A tiny fraction of these graduate students will be able to get jobs in science. The JWST isn’t helping them, and claiming that it has anything to do with getting “these intelligent, dedicated people to live in our cities, to make their discoveries at our universities and to raise their families — the next generation of bright minds — right here” is highly dishonest. I’m sick of these lies.

  • jimvj

    This is the budgetary reality in California:

    The budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation increased from about 3% of the state’s general fund in 1980 to 11.2% for this fiscal year, according to figures prepared at the request of The Bay Citizen by the state Department of Finance. Meanwhile, funding for UC and CSU dropped from 10% of the state’s general fund 30 years ago to about 6.6% this fiscal year.

    Source: The Bay Citizen (

  • I.P. Freeley

    Interesting article. Of course James Bullock is a theorist who’s probably never analyzed a Hubble image in his life, but his wife works on JWST at Northrop Grumman. Funny how he failed to mention that continuing to fund JWST doesn’t really help his science but does contribute to his family’s income.

    And of course I have to agree with the pessimists above–even if JWST flies, there aren’t enough jobs in astronomy to make it a legitimate career path anymore (was it ever?).

  • J. Rich

    There are a lot of grumpy people here.

    @1 😛

    @3 The point is that they are sacrificing the opportunity to get jobs and make money right now and for 4 or 5 years to work hard on something they are passionate about. I like money too, but I like to think I haven’t lost my soul yet. Soon, though, soon.

    @4 The United States is THE largest economy in the world with a huge concentration of financial and intellectual capital. There is NO reason that a country in such a position should not be working hard to help lead the way in scientific endeavors. If you want to argue about American patriotic wang-waving contests, this is neither the place nor the time.

    @6 This is NOT about the problems inherent to academia. Instead of whining and getting angry (which I DO like to do too) work hard to get more funding and work towards changing the structure of academics in a constructive manner

    @8 As an observational astronomer I have a very tenuous grasp of the details of the theoretical models that are created to explain the observations we make. I would gladly support funding resources that help drive theoretical astronomy forward because they do hard work to contextualize our observations. Theoretical astronomers do not work in a vacuum, they require excellent observational facilities and observational astronomers to test and inform their theories.
    And, again, arguing to defund an important mission because Astronomy is a useless career path is starting down an odd path of negative feedback: of course if there are less funds and less cutting edge facilities, people will move away from Astronomy and science in general which is PRECISELY the reason to fund it. Science, especially academic science, is a tough “career”.

    Things should probably be changed to make life a bit less painful, but complaining and running away won’t fix things. That’s not why we do science, that’s not why we do most things in life.

  • Thomas Larsson

    The archdruid wrote a poetic but quite sad elegy for the age of space. Funding of the JWST does not seem very likely from that perspective.

  • I.P. Freeley

    Yes, I’m aware there are good reasons for theorists to support JWST. My point was that it was poor form for James to not disclose his rather obvious conflict of interests on this issue.

    Checking the comments, neither I nor anyone else one on the thread is actually “arguing to defund” the mission. Although I think at least a few JWST management heads should roll.

    I have no problem with academic science being a tough career. Medicine is also a tough career. But 50% of med school graduates don’t end up leaving medicine. Yet those are the kind of numbers new Astronomy phds are looking at. That’s going beyond “tough career” to a career no one in their right mind would start. There’s a standard mantra, echoed in the LA Times article, that scientists are some of the best and brightest. The reality is that science has been attracting a smaller and smaller fraction of the top students. That’s a serious problem, and little is being done to address it.

    I think “complaining and running away” is actually the ONLY way we can actually fix things. Science in the US is so hierarchical change has to come from the top. The only way for those of us on the bottom (grads and postdocs) to force change is to walk away. It’ll only be when PIs are unable to find competent people to fill their grad and postdoc positions that the funding organizations will be forced to reorganize. Maybe I’m just fired up from the Labor Day holiday, but I think we’re overdue for a labor movement in Astronomy. The alternative is to let the field continue to bleed talent and become like the Humanities where everyone acknowledges there are no jobs and a phd is just a vanity project for those who can afford it.

  • RT

    One thing to consider also is that when you cut stuff like this, and people leave physics and astronomy, they can’t just come right back when funding recovers. At least in my field, you get about 1-2 years max before you start losing your training expertise. So if you cut all your funding now and all your bright young grad students go into finance (or whatever) instead of getting astronomy postdoc jobs, they can’t just come back when Congress decides it’s less anti-science. You have to train new people.

    Or you can re-hire the ones who went over to China and Europe. And believe me, they already exist!

  • James

    Just for the record, my wife does work for NG, but we have no financial incentive in the JWST issue. In fact, they are concerned that she will quit if it does get cancelled because they know that she does her job because of a passion for the mission rather than for monetary reward. The point is that she has a job regardless. There is way more money in building bombers if you hadn’t noticed.

    As for me, my career and wallet will be fine if JWST is cancelled. I probably won’t be able to support as many graduate students and postdocs in the long run and our campus will be less likely to hire new faculty members because the funding stream that is now HST will be gone. Current grads and postdocs will be less likely to get to work in this wonderful field. If the JWST money goes away it is not going to go back to astronomy, that’s for sure.

    I wrote the above op-ed because I think that it’s the right thing for astronomy and I wanted to give back something to a field that has been very good to me. The time I spent writing it was time that I didn’t spend writing grants, Keck proposals (due tomorrow!), doing research, or generally working on things that benefit my own personal research agenda. If you disagree with me, then fine. But don’t suggest that I’m doing this to get paid. If I was doing something for the money it sure as hell wouldn’t be astronomy.

  • I.P. Freeley

    Well clarified. I agree with most of the content in your op-ed, I’m mostly just trolling for fun over details. I wholeheartedly agree that if JWST gets canceled it will seriously hurt the field and dissuade even more students from starting science careers.

  • Dennis Lasswell

    The irritating thing about this reflexive “do good science at all costs” argument for JWST is that there is no effort to assess the costs. NASA isn’t going to get an extra $300-400M/yr for six or seven years to get JWST finished. That’s not realistic. Sure, it would be nice to take it out of Afghanistan, but it ain’t gonna happen. That money will come out of other NASA disciplines including, and quite probably mostly, NASA science. So which scientists does astronomy take it from? Planetary? Heliophysics? Earth science? What’s left of Life and Microgravity? Do astronomers look at those scientists and say “Yeah, our science is better than yours” ? Once it does take that money, and JWST is (maybe) completed by 2018, what’s to prevent these other disciplines from turning around and pointing at what’s left of Astrophysics to fund their own awesome science priorities? “It’s our turn now” they might say. What’s your plan, Professor Bullock? Tell us, please. Give us a plan, not platitudes.

    Saving JWST isn’t about saving science. It’s about saving JWST science. JWST science is great. But so was SIM science and LISA science. And so would be WFIRST science. But those missions are unlikely to happen because of the JWST overruns. Would not those missions have also been inspirational and help us write the story of the universe? In spite of what some save-JWST-at-all-cost advocates will say can’t happen, that $5B needed to complete JWST could actually be replanned, with Congress’ enthusiastic support, to other fantastic science missions such as these others. Constellation, which was the pride of human space flight, was cancelled because of cost overruns. Lots of sunk costs, big embarrassment. Did NASA human space flight lose that money originally obligated to Constellation? Did it go to science or aeronautics instead? Nope.

    Let it furthermore be understood that JWST isn’t being cancelled because dumb House of Representatives members don’t appreciate good science. They do. Rep. Wolf, who inserted that cancellation language, was honored for his strong efforts on behalf of science several years ago by the Science Coalition. No, Congress just sees a fiscal train wreck. In fact, a train wreck that has repeated several times in the last decade.

    Mind you, I believe strongly in JWST and it’s science potential. But the astronomy community is now confronted with what is a most un-inspiring fiscal train wreck that contributes in a questionable way to any impression of scientific leadership. The science community has to think hard about the ramifications of saving JWST. It’s a situation that has degenerated substantially since the good old days when the Astrophysics Division at NASA had even a chance of paying for it.

  • Doug M.

    I can’t believe it took 15 comments for someone to point this out. Well spoken, Dennis Lasswell.

    Doug M.

  • Pingback: Make your opinion known | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Jimbo

    When there was trouble with Hubble, NASA/SpaceShuttle came to rescue. Not possible here, since the JWST will not be placed into Earth orbit, & hence will be unserviceable. The instruments will not be changed throughout the course of its projected 5yr lifetime. Any subsystem, optical, stabilization, power, etc. which goes bonkers courtesy of Murphy’s law, & the JWST is A Five- Giga$$$ piece of burnt Toast. Then, it will float helplessly in view for all to see as a reminder of NASA’s penultimate failure, and why we so desperately need to empower private enterprise to take over space exploration.

  • Cygnus X-1

    The Planetary Science Institute has come out in favor
    of killing the JWST if the cost overruns will be at
    the expense of other space science programs:

    Point 3 is most telling:

    “(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.”

    In addition, the director of the Solar Physics Division
    of the American Astronomical Society expresses concerns:

    So it would appear that the astronomical community itself is
    divided over whether the JWST is worth continuing. Only those
    whose research would directly benefit from it are in favor of
    continuing it “at all costs.”

  • Dennis Lasswell

    Let’s be very clear here. No one doesn’t want JWST to continue. But if the only way to make it continue is to make other science pay for it, that makes no sense to scientists.

    Yes, not unexpectedly, those whose research would directly benefit from it are shrill in their “at all costs!” You can interpret that, in this context, as meaning “our science is way better than yours!” Take that, planetary scientists and solar physicists! Step right up and let us slap your face.

    What is hilarious is that this division in the science community (oh, it isn’t just astronomers, wait until the Earth science folks get involved!) seems to have been totally unexpected by many. Did the JWST community really think that the other science communities were going to lay down and get walked all over? Pathetic.

    This is all about a project that was not only very badly fiscally managed, with many failures in its cost management history, but about a project whose bad fiscal management was not recoverable within its own discipline. There has to be a lesson there about where to draw the line in cost overruns.

    You know, if this were to support an existing mission — say, add a year or two of ops for a fantastically productive mission, that’s a bird-in-hand proposition, and a little arm twisting in the science community isn’t that bad. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is about a mission that is seven years away from launch. It may, yes it just may, fail after launch. Why should other science communities ever be put in the position that they were forced to help pay for a mission that failed?

  • Charon

    @Jimbo (and Dennis): right… because total failure is exactly what happens to all missions we can’t access, like Cassini, Voyager, Messenger, Kepler, Herschel, WMAP, Spirit and Opportunity, Chandra, Spitzer, …

    Or, wait. No, it isn’t.

    Nothing that does what JWST will do can operate near the Earth. So… total failure is a possibility, but it’s honestly not that likely. And that’s why they’re testing the hell out of everything.

  • Charon

    Oh, and private enterprise helps us plenty with space instruments (Ball Aerospace, etc.). So what more do you want them to do? Put up the money for a decade of technology development for no commercial yield? Riiiight…

    Should JWST have been planned with a 4m mirror? Yes. Should it have been managed better? Yes. Should we cancel the only flagship space astronomy mission the US will see for over a decade after spending billions of dollars on it and having finished nearly all the instruments and mirrors? No, I don’t think so.

    All you people in science fields other than IR astronomy: if JWST is cancelled, you’re not getting the money either. Really, you’re not. If you were, I’d understand your argument. But you’re not.

  • David Derbes

    Cost overruns are a part of Big Science. The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) was canceled mid-project when the costs ballooned from (IIRC) $2G to $7G in the space of a year. And look how well that cancellation turned out for American high energy physics.

    The worst aspect of all this is that these overruns force internecine wars between scientists. The argument shouldn’t be “Yeah, we can spend X on JWST, but only if we spend N-X on the other astrophysical projects.” I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but we’re chewing up something like $100G a year in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course our resources are limited, but they ain’t that limited, if we can devote billions to bombing every week.

    Long ago Robert Wilson testified to Congress about Fermilab. Some Senator asked him, Dr Wilson, will this project help defend America? No, he replied, except to make America worth defending. And that was nearly forty years ago. If we spent more on research and less on the technology of death, maybe the country would be better off.

  • Disgruntled astronomer

    The big issue that needs to be addressed is the apparent culture at the top of NASA that sets up these financial problems. Sure, there is plenty of pontificating regarding the need for new NASA missions to stay on budget, and unreasonable pressure put of instrument and project leads in efforts to make them do this in spite of not giving them the power to actually control their budgets. But at the top, Weiler et al. (I quote one name, but I don’t really know who is/are most responsible), have been playing a dangerous game for the last decade. They manipulated the system to get JWST funded with estimated budgets that they had to know were vast underestimates.

    Even though in current dollars Hubble cost in excess of $8 billion if you don’t count all the launches and re-launches for servicing. In the context of other new missions the number to compare to should be over $13 billion when all these others costs are considered (and yes, most of the servicing missions and decommissioning mission were known to be costs of the duration of the entire mission life). When they argued for JWST to first get funded, they argued that it would cost under a billion dollars. I simply do not accept that they believed this number themselves, and they put it forward as they knew that was the number needed to start to get the mission program funded. Then they had the hope of always continuing. They were gambling that at no point would the astrophysics community “fold” once laying down a large amount of their cash on the table already – sacrificing many other people and scientific opportunities along the way. If you go back to the oldest JWST documents, you can see that the original estimates were not based upon anything – and were very likely a simple lie, considered a necessary evil in order to get started the thing they thought was most important. In the original estimates, in spite of JWST obviously being far more demanding and complicated, there are statements that simply go along the line of …. by developing new innovations we will be able to reduce costs. This is something that has actually happened, as the probably costs scaled from Hubble are less – but less by a factor of about 2-3, not even close to the completely unrealistic factor of 10-15 that was effectively suggested.

    At this point I should stop and explain that all this nonsense about JWST’s cost being so over-blown is all due to delays and poor management. If they had to start again today and build the whole thing over again with what they already have learned, it would still cost about $5+ billion to build – the extra ~$1-2 billion is what has been lost from delays and poor management (perhaps not surprizing when you start with a completely unrealistic goal). So the people at the top made the decision to get a $5+ billion mission going without having a proper budget for it, with self-justification likely to have been an honest but misguided belief that it was the right thing to do, and since they were the ones with power to do, then they had to. The fact is, the rest of the astrophysics program have suffered from this decision for over a decade now, and will continue for the whole of the next decade, if not more. It will likely be more, because other scientific parts of NASA will also likely suffer from the effects of JWST for the rest of this decade, and will want compensation when choosing the next really big missions again in the decades to follow. From the tone of the most recent astrophysics Decadal survey, I have the sense that many in the community now realize what the story has been and that it shouldn’t continue. It was already far more conservative in outlook. But unfortunately, it is too late to help for the next Decade or two, while JWST continues to get funded. I do feel sorry for many who probably work really hard and effectively on this project and have done great things, and I do think that the scientific goals on the mission are pretty great. I blame the system that has set up this financial environment.

    Although the JWST is the worst example, this kind of costing “game” is at the heart of the NASA science problems. In order to get funded it is always necessary to game the system to get the estimated budgets within the constraints needed and still appear cheap. Those that make estimates according to all the rules with integrity either end up with budgets too large to be funded, or missions not interesting enough scientifically to compete with those having unrealistic estimates. This often happens at the level of Decadal panels, at the Explorer program level, and at just about every level where funds get allocated. This is the main problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Adam

    It’s a bit hard to take seriously an editorial that has the sunk cost fallacy embedded in it, even when the amount of money already spent on JWST isn’t embarrassing in itself.

    Personally, I’m ambivalent; it’s a great science instrument (assuming it works, which I think we can assume at least for the sake of this argument) but there has to be a moral hazard in continuing to fund things that blow their budget so badly, more than once, and by so much it impacts other science. It’s a shame that Congress, rather than NASA, could be the author of its demise, although I read that Obama somewhat offered it up by explicitly mentioning it as a budget line in his preferred budget (don’t know whether that is true, that it was Obama that initially put it up on the chopping block).

    I know that amongst a fair number of astronomers to whom I’ve spoken, there’s a similar ambivalence. Amongst some, there’s actual hostility to JWST because of the sums of money it’s consumed. Most have wanted JWST to go ahead, though, even those not expecting much direct use of the scientific output. Just a sample of anecdotes, in any case, not significant data.

    Anyhow, will Sen. Miksulski (D, GSFC) really let it go? At least without ensuring that Goddard still gets whatever monies it’d lose from the end of JWST, and finding something else for STScI to do when Hubble ends?

  • réalta fuar

    Some great comments here from Dennis Lasswell, disgruntled astronomer, and Adam, among others. In fact, these comments are MUCH better reasoned than the original post and the editorial it pointed to.
    @Adam I love it “Sen Mikulski (D, GSFC)”, hilarious.
    There are also good, balanced comments (not just the cheerleading one sees most often here) over at the blog catdynamics.
    JWST is effectively dead, dead and not zombie dead since so many other branches of science also supported by NASA are so sick of the arrogance associated with it.
    JWST now joins the unfortunate list of over-sold, over-hyped super projects that included the Space Shuttle (also with lots of cheerleaders on this blog) and the SCSC.

  • Jimbo

    Sorry to note this a.m., the Senate has `saved’ JWST:
    The Democrat-controlled Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee allocated $530 million for the project out of a total NASA budget of $17.9 billion.

    If someone offered you a Mercedes Benz for $10K, on the condition it could not be serviced, no oil change, no tune up, etc., & you would not be allowed to sell, trade, or junk it, would you ? Not if you are sane, for it would inevitably break down, strand you, & then you’d have to tow it.
    This is exactly the plight of JWST, reflecting the plight of NASA thinking, or lack thereof.
    Lest no one forget, Hubble was launched with a fatal phuckup, but was saved by serviceability.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “The United States is still the scientific light of the world.”

    Based on what? The percentage of citizens who believe in evolution? Anthropic global warming? Give me a break! Even if it were true, can’t the author make his point without relying on jingoism?

    Is there any per capita statistic which supports this claim?

    Also, arguments like this tend to obscure the true goal, science for its own sake, and warp it into “we have to do more than the other guys” (which will backfire if the other guys cut back).

  • Pingback: This World We Live In Is Not But A Speck Of Dust | Bloggo Schloggo()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Risa Wechsler


See More

Collapse bottom bar