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.Follow @telescoper