Archive for James Webb Space Telescope

JWST: Over and Out?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 23, 2011 by telescoper

News 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 $2.2 billion higher than previous figures. In fact about a decade ago, when I was a lad, and chair of the old PPARC Astronomy Advisory Panel, the price tag of  the NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), as it was then called, was put at significantly less than one billion dollars.

The implications of cancelling JWST are profound on both sides of the Atlantic. As Mark McCaughrean explains in detail over on the e-astronomer, the European Space Agency has already made a substantial investment in JWST and planned future contributions include the launch and substantial operating costs. The instrument development is nearly finished, but whether there will actually be a telescope to put instruments on remains to be seen. It’s clear that this, together with previous unilateral decisions by NASA, is putting some strain on the relationship with ESA.

There were many who reacted to the initial suggestion that JWST should be cancelled by arguing that it was mere political posturing by Republicans in the House of Representatives and that it could and would be reversed if appropriate campaigning took place. To this end there has been, e.g.,  a letter to the White House Science Advisor (here for non-US astronomers and there for US ones). There’s also been a letter of support from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s administrators have also apparently come up with a plan to divert funds from other projects to support it. These efforts notwithstanding I get the distinct feeling that cancellation of JWST is a very real prospect and it goes without saying that the chances of avoiding it are not helped by  the increased estimated expense.

I’ve talked about this to a number of astronomers and cosmologists over the summer and found very mixed views not only about  (a) whether JWST will be cancelled or not but also about (b) whether it should be cancelled or not. Even astronomers have expressed exasperation with the spiralling cost of JWST and pointed out that if we had known a decade ago that it would take so long and involve such an outlay then it would never have gone ahead in the first place.

So let me try a straw poll:

JWST: Too Big to Fail?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 7, 2011 by telescoper

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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