House Pitching Death of Hubble Space Telescope Successor

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In an attempt to further tighten the national belt, the U.S. House moved this week to cut the James Webb Space Telescope from the budget, effectively threatening NASA’s follow-up to the Hubble, and the future of our eyes-in-space program. There’s something poetic (poetically dismaying, that is) about the timing, too: Space shuttle Atlantis launched just this morning—the last launch of a space shuttle probably ever—signaling the demise of NASA’s over 30-year-old shuttle program.

All it took was a voice vote by a House appropriations subcommittee to strip funding for the project. Trouble is, the program was already $1.5 billion and change over budget. It’s behind schedule, too. The Webb Telescope should’ve launched in 2014, but it’s currently delayed until 2018.

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What’s the big deal about yanking a space telescope? For starters, the Webb Telescope’s actually more than your average collection of curved mirrors and lenses. In fact it’s a full-blown infrared space observatory. Its mission: to scan for light from the very first stars, understand galaxy formation and evolution and study the origins of life in terms of planetary systems. It’s also the only thing scheduled to follow the Hubble’s mission, which ends (and apparently can’t be extended) sometime in 2014.

So should we support the funding cull or protest it? If you’re coming at it politically, positions tend to fall along current slash-or-save lines (Democrats want to save it, Republicans want to quash it). But forget the politics of spend-or-save for a moment.

Look at it through Wired‘s pro-JWST eyes, and you’ll hear this sort of argument:

…Hubble has cost the U.S. a substantial amount of money, but its contributions to science have been of incalculable worth… And JWST will be a much, much better telescope than Hubble, and not just because it has the benefit of decades-better technology. Not only will it be in a much higher orbit than Hubble, but it will be substantially larger and thus able to collect considerably more detailed and more distant observations. Scientists have some educated guesses as to what kinds of discoveries JWST could make, but it’s very likely that, as it was with Hubble, many things it will find are so revolutionary they’re simply beyond our ability to predict.

Or, alternatively, consider Science 2.0‘s hard-knocks counter-position, arguing that:

Budgets are finite. Everyone knows this except partisans in science. The $1.5 billion that JWST now claims it needs in order to not waste the billions already spent could fund 5,000 basic science research projects in space science (see While Webb Bleeds, Space Science Hemorrhages) and $1.5 billion is just the latest cost overrun, not the total budget that may come up as more engineering concerns arise – so rather than circle the wagons around this project because it is science and people want to avoid a slippery slope, scientists can do a world of good holding each other accountable and making it less necessary for politicians to do so.

I share the spirit of the first quote, but sympathize with the practical sense of the second. If the JWST is in fact an artifact of sloppy budgets or bureaucratic hobgoblins, we need to restructure the system so that craziness like going over budget by more than $1.5 billion can’t happen. Budgetary compliance shouldn’t be political. If we’re so shortsighted that budgets have to overspill by billions for admittedly ultra-complex projects like the JWST, well, Houston, meet problem.

I can’t say what the right position on JWST is since it’s already well along (according to the Baltimore Sun, one Democrat argues the project is 75% complete and that it supports 2,000 jobs, including 500 in Maryland), but if the long-term fix means we have to do more (or less) with less, so be it.

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