JWST: Too Big to Fail?

News emerged last night that the US Government may be about to cancel the  James Webb Space Telescope, which is intended to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. I’m slow out of the blocks on this one, as I had an early night last night, but there’s already extensive reaction to the JWST crisis around the blogosphere: see, for example, Andy Lawrence, Sarah Kendrew, and Amanda Bauer; I’m sure there are many more articles elsewhere.

The US House Appropriations Committee has released its Science Appropriations Bill for the Fiscal Year 2012, which will be voted on tomorrow. Among other announcements (of big cuts to NASA’s budget) listed in the accompanying press release we find

The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

It is undoubtedly the case that JWST is way over budget and very late. Initial estimates put the cost of the at $1.6 billion and that it would be launched this year (2011). Now it can’t launch until at least 2018,  and probably won’t fly until as late as 2020, with an estimated final price tag of $6.8 billion. I couldn’t possibly comment on whether that is due to poor management or just that it’s an incredibly challenging project.

There’s a very informative piece on the Nature News Blog that explains that this is an early stage of the passage of the bill and that there’s a long way to go before JWST is definitely axed, but it is a worrying time for all those involved in it. There are serious implications for the European Space Agency, which is also involved in JWST, to STFC, which supports UK activity in related projects, and indeed for many groups of astronomers around the world who are currently engaged in building and testing instruments.

One of the arguments against cancelling JWST now is that all the money that has been spent on it so far would have been wasted, in other words that it’s “too big to fail”, which is an argument that obviously can’t be sustained indefinitely. It may be now it’s so far over budget that it’s become a political liability to NASA, i.e. it’s too big to succeed. It’s too early to say that JWST is doomed – this draft budget is partly a political shot across the bows of the President by the Republicans in the House – but it does that the politicians are prepared to think what has previously been unthinkable.

UPDATE: A statement has been issued by the American Astronomical Association.


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21 Responses to “JWST: Too Big to Fail?”

  1. Brian Schmidt Says:

    A great summary as always. The fundamental question of where this will go is how badly the Democrats will want to keep JWST compared to the Republicans wanting to axe it. While this is all playing out in an environment where the political polarization on the budget is extremely high – my sense is that both sides are relatively soft in their positions: The Republicans are not that keen to kill it – and the Democrats aren’t going to be willing to lose too much skin to save it. This indicates that public response will likely be key in saving the mission.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know much about US politics, but there is obviously quite a lot of posturing, flexing of muscles, etc going on here. If political opinion can be mobilised then the final bill may be much less severe. Perhaps a (further) rescheduling and administrative reorganisation will emerge as a political compromise?

  2. Rhodri Evans Says:

    A quick comment before I read more background to this story (I’m waiting for a train in Grimsby!). I saw a link from Sean Carroll on Facebook last week to a story stating that the US is spending more on Air Conditioning costs each year in Iraq and Afghanistan than NASA’s annual budget. If this is true then it’s a sad reflection of the US’s priorities. Clearly money is there, but science & exploration are clearly less important than throwing one’s military weight around. This just angers me.

  3. Rhodri Evans Says:

    I work on SOFIA, which many readhing this many know was axed back in 2006/07. But, after concerted lobbying by the astronomical community involved in airborne astronomy, it was re-instated and has since seen first light and seveal science flights. So, the community CAN make a difference when projects are axed, or threatened with being axed, by Congress.

    We also saw in the Disunited Kingdom how the threats to tear the guts out of science research funding here were shelved after the science community got together in their “science is vital” campaign. My experience of US politics, from my 9 years or living there, is that things are far more polarised between D and R than they are between eg. the Tories and Labour here.

    But, the rhetoric is usually driven by a few vocal politiciians on either side, most Democrats and Republicans can be persuaded either way on many, many issues. I’m sure fiunding of JWST falls into that category, because when it comes down to it it just a quettion of money.

    What the community has to do is get the politicians to realise that (a) a lot of money already spent woould be wasted if it were axed now and (b) what the payback to the American taxpayer will be if JWST goes aheead. Not just in terms of science return (which should of course be part of the argument), but in terms of inspiring the next generation into science and technology, which will only add to the wealth of the US.

    Also, spin-off benefits need to be pointed out. Next to their main concenrr of being re-elected, most politicians care most about is National Wealth (mainly monetary but maybe not entirely), and, in the US’s case, Global Standing and Glooabl influence. Doing something to keep the US ahead of other countries on a technological levels is, I belieeve, a strong argument to US politicians where they fear beinng “overtaken” by e.g. the Chinese.

    • SOFIA was axed by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. Not Congress. That’s an important difference.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    The experience within Britain over the past few years is that campaigning and lobbying by scientists can influence political views somewhat.

    There should be lots of opportunities for local astronomy research groups to lobby their local Congressional representatives to change opinions. They need to write to their Congressmen and women to emphasise the great benefit to local universities from access to the JWST.

    The JWST project can be saved. It just requires a positive-minded lobbying campaign with lots of letters from scientists to politicians.

  5. Wasn’t SSC too big to fail?

  6. The UK and hence STFC is of course directly involved in JWST MIRI with Gillian Wright as Co-Lead on the MIRI science team. I’m sure you knew this but it wasn’t clear as you just mentioned “related projects”.

    • telescoper Says:

      I was indeed aware, but it does no harm for that to be pointed out explicitly.

      My understanding is that MIRI is basically finished and delivered. Is that right?

      • My Leicester colleagues (Leicester has a significant MIRI role) tell me that the MIRI flight model has completed its main functional and performance tests at cryo temperatures and is expected to achieve “delivery readiness” by the end of this year and actually be delivered early 2012.

        So more or less finished and not far off delivered.

        I should also have mentioned that Gillian is also European PI for the instrument.

      • An instrument being essentially finished does not stop the facility for which it was to go onto being axed. Sadly.

      • telescoper Says:

        No, but at least the people who built it probably got paid already…

  7. The scary thing is that a lot of NASA astronomy spending was already cut over the last few years just to keep JWST going. Hence to abandon JWST now would be a double cut to the overall astronomy budget.

    Hubble already has a great hold over the public’s imagination in the US (e.g. see Milky J’s defense of it here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/08/06/hubble-gotchu-2/). If it can be sold as Hubble 2 to the public then it may have a chance.

    As for the technological spin-offs I’m sure there are or will be other satellites from other agencies employing similar technology. The Shuttle and Hubble had significant non-science/exploration motivating forces behind them.

    • The prospect that JWST can be saved by the public, as public outcry allegedly saved Hubble is ludicrous. What JWST offers is great science and cool pictures in about a decade. Maybe longer. What Hubble offered is great stuff right now. Hubble was an existing mission. It was there. It worked. JWST is a dream. A dream with some hardware.

  8. telescoper Says:

    There’s a on this by Sarah Kendrew in today’s Grauniad.


    Apparently, MIRI is almost finished and is shortly to be sent to NASA.

    Does anyone know if an instrument like MIRI could be flown on another mission, if JWST is cancelled?

    Also, what fraction of the spend needed to complete JWST is actually the launch cost?

    Answers on postcards please…

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      My understanding is that the JWST is scheduled for launch by the European Space Agency on an Ariane rocket and that is financially the biggest European contribution to the project. As such, the launch costs would not be included in NASA’s spending on the project, and therefore is independent of NASA’s spending problems and the US Congess’s doubts about future funding.

      That’s my understanding, but somebody might correct me.

  9. Karl Adlon Says:

    Shuttle Killed
    JWST to be Killed
    No American Human Space Launch System.
    Let’s scrap NASA.
    Recycle the good parts.
    Dump the POLITICAL, A**-KISSING Bureaucrats.

  10. [...] filtered through recently that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already  threatened with cancellation owing to cuts in NASA’s budget, is now estimated to be around $8.7 billion dollars, about [...]

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