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Threat of James Webb Space Telescope Cancellation Rattles Astronomy Community

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JWST modelAs NASA prepares to wrap up its shuttle program, leaving open questions about what comes next for U.S. human spaceflight, the next big thing in NASA’s astronomy program has been dealt a blow. The James Webb Space Telescope, a tennis court–size spacecraft that would take up a position in deep space to peer farther than ever into the cosmos, has been in development as a replacement for and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has already logged 21 years in orbit. But the House Appropriations Committee, in a bill announced July 6, proposed axing the project entirely this week, citing mismanagement and bad budgeting.

The bill, which would cut $1.6 billion, or about 9 percent, from NASA’s overall budget, would have to clear the full House and gain Senate approval before becoming law. But the specter of JWST cancellation looms large over a field already facing diminished resources. "Obviously, this proposal…is upsetting," American Astronomical Society (AAS) Executive Officer Kevin Marvel wrote on his organization’s blog. "The astronomy community knows the value of the JWST, recognizes that nearly all technical hurdles have been overcome and that a review of the program’s management, budget and completion plan is nearly complete."

The House committee’s concerns have some grounds; in November 2010, a review convened by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) found JWST was well behind schedule and $1.4 billion over budget, bringing the total estimate for the observatory to $6.5 billion. (NASA has already spent roughly half that amount.) The telescope, which had been targeted for a 2014 launch, would launch no sooner than 2015, the report concluded. In recent months much later launch dates of 2018 or beyond have been rumored.

But delays and cost overruns are nothing new for projects of unprecedented scale. Take the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is a much smaller observatory than JWST, orbiting far closer to Earth, and whose deployment was a much simpler affair than the elaborate de-cocooning JWST will have to perform in deep space. Hubble was famously delayed by seven years, from a 1983 launch to a 1990 launch, and had just about tripled in cost by the time it reached orbit, according to a 1992 U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) report (pdf). By the time of that GAO report, the Hubble’s price tag was roughly $3 billion in 2011 dollars. Its cost over the years has swelled to several times that amount, thanks to two decades of operations and five space shuttle visits to the telescope for servicing. (A single shuttle servicing mission costs about $2 billion, according to one NASA estimate.)

Who knows if Congress would have given a greenlight to Hubble if its total cost were known from the start? But few would argue now that the orbiting observatory has been a poor investment. In fact it has revolutionized humankind’s view of the universe.

And who knows what would have happened if Congress had not canceled the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC)? The SSC, a mammoth particle physics experiment in Texas, was axed in 1993 when its price tag grew too large for Congressional funders’ liking. Roughly $2 billion had already been sunk into the project by 1993, but its estimated cost had doubled from $5.3 billion to more than $11 billion. (That is about $17 billion in 2011 dollars.)

The SSC would have been the successor to the much less powerful Tevatron in Illinois, a workhorse particle collider that is scheduled to be shut down this year. Instead the title of most powerful collider moved to Europe, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) came online in late 2009 and quickly eclipsed the Tevatron by colliding particles at higher energies than had ever been achieved. But whereas the LHC is designed to be about seven times as powerful as the Tevatron, the SSC would have been 20 times as powerful as the Tevatron and nearly three times as powerful as the LHC.

Photo of a JWST model in Germany: EADS Astrium





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  1. 1. raphaelperrino 7:18 pm 07/7/2011

    Save the Next Generation’s Hubble! We must not allow the short-term economic woes of our generation squander our long-term aspirations in space science. Join the fight to save the James Webb Space Telescope on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SaveJWST. Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/SaveJWST | hashtags: #SaveJWST #JWST.

    And let’s get your voices heard! Does your Congressman or Congresswoman serve on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations? (1) Check the list: http://1.usa.gov/pXMzqD. (2) Next, send a letter or email in support of the JWST: http://1.usa.gov/qdz5zP.

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  2. 2. Polynumeral 8:38 pm 07/7/2011

    This results of these programs should benefit all mankind. I’m not an American but I fail to see why there seems to be a need felt for the cost to come solely from the American purse. Perhaps if collaborations were sought more aggressively , then the cost would not be so onerous on any one particular nation leading to more worthwhile large scale projects being built.

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  3. 3. Butchfoote 9:43 pm 07/7/2011

    Why is anyone surprised? The DOD now spends more on air conditioning in Afghanistan than all of NASA’s budget.

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  4. 4. femdominacija 9:48 pm 07/7/2011

    I love this deeply scientific thought by Robert ‘Everything they need to know is in the bible.’

    OK, now that we know everything, do we know the cost of not having a successor to the Hubble promptly? Postponements means cost increases. Having a good idea of the total cost to maintain the James Webb Space Telescope is scarier than seeing the force of evil. We are all in favor of budget cuts. There are wise budget cuts and there are unwise budget cuts. The non-astronomer should have an idea of the benefits that such a telescope could bring.

    Having a USA Physics Research facility with international help would be great to have and could bring fundamental new insight in the nature of matter that could benefit all. The obstacle is money.

    Building a true interplanetary spaceship that does not require gravity assist and brings the crew within months to remote planes would be extremely well spent money if we could find money. Such a project would be a stimulus to the economy as well as Physics Research and the telescope.

    Over a trillion dollars was invested to stimulate the economy. I do not see the results clearly nor I see what it purchased clearly. I can see interplanetary ships, telescopes and Sub-Nuclear Research centers

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  5. 5. exodus88 9:52 pm 07/7/2011

    Where doe the money come from, there is a limit to how much money that can be spent on such things like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc, soon the USA will go into default if some curbs are not placed on spending.

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  6. 6. robert schmidt 10:42 pm 07/7/2011

    please read my comment more carefully.

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  7. 7. robert schmidt 10:52 pm 07/7/2011

    agreed, so spend the money on gaining knowledge rather than killing foreigners. Not quite the wrath of god the right wing tends to support but it does have the benefit of enriching mankind. It amazes me when research funding comes up and everyone cries about pinching pennies. But when it comes to raining missles on civilians in a distant land everyone is all for it, that is until their own people start coming home in body-bags. If the US can spend as much as it does on the military, it can find a few extra bucks to spend on projects that contribute to mankind.

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  8. 8. hotblack 3:26 am 07/8/2011

    So, sell it to the Chinese like everything else. Get some money out of it while you can, America.

    All the money in the world, and we for the life of us can’t figure out how to spend it.

    Stupid country deserves to fall like it’s falling.

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  9. 9. Nerdx86 8:41 am 07/8/2011

    Before you paint republicans as the ultimate villains, look around at the whole field..

    While I agree that the majority of the funding pressure comes from the Republican party, I feel the real issue is that our politics in this country is so polarized. We have 2 real choices (and yes, I am picking on the extremes of each party here, I know there are plenty of decent people on each side): 1. The democrats who choose to spend money like water without any real focus on results from that money and who have no moral compass whatsoever "if it feels good, do it". or 2. The Republicans (and especially TP’rs) who think that if we let everyone keep all of their money, the rich will just build our infrastructure and support services for us for a small fee and who can’t understand any moral compass except their own..

    How do we as citizens support things like space science without also supporting all the misguided things about the democrats? How do we support a balanced budget, so that we have the financial means to do the really big space projects (like going to mars) without also supporting the self serving purposes of the republicans? We can’t elect "people" anymore, we can only elect party representatives. And the parties support themselves on extremism.. Gay Rights, tax cuts, abortion, universal health care, etc bring in donations and volunteers..

    We need to do something to enhance our right to choose our representatives without the baggage of being a member of a specific party.. Parties should have no right to sanction a member for voting his or her conscience!

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  10. 10. DrStrangepork 9:44 am 07/8/2011

    An over-generalization of Republicans, but it is accurate for enough members of Congress to influence policy. Disgusting…

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  11. 11. leaturk 10:09 am 07/8/2011

    Such a pity, I was looking forward to the spectacular results, but on a serious note; America is has to be very careful not to lose its lead in this technology, so please start to make your displeasure known to your congressman and try and stop this decay..

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  12. 12. leaturk 10:13 am 07/8/2011

    Such a pity, I was looking forward to the spectacular results, but on a serious note; America is has to be very careful not to lose its lead in this technology, so please start to make your displeasure known to your congressman and try and stop this decay..

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  13. 13. sault 11:01 am 07/8/2011

    "1. The democrats who choose to spend money like water without any real focus on results from that money and who have no moral compass whatsoever "if it feels good, do it"."

    Ummm…Wasn’t it the Republicans that started 2 Trillion-dollar-plus wars (while cutting taxes mostly for the rich mind you), grew the national security apparatus by 100% (military, TSA, etc.), enacted a $100B giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry in Medicare part D, AND who never met a corporate welfare program they didn’t like (Oil subsidies, corporate jet loopholes)?

    They did this ALL on the nation’s credit card, racking up interest payments all the way. And then when their Free Market Fundamentalist Ideology blew up in their face with the Financial Collapse, they blamed poor minorities for buying houses they couldn’t afford. Finally, when Obama had to come in and clean up after 30 years of horrible policy, suddenly all the Republicans start to care about the national debt again. This is all a political ploy so that they can dismantle the last echoes of the New Deal, something they have been trying to do since FDR enacted them.
    Seriously, how can we not afford the James Webb Telescope, but don’t you DARE go and try to cut $4B a year subsidies to oil companies making RECORD PROFITS? How come we can hardly keep our schools open any more but it’s impossible to repeal tax breaks for corporate jets? Their priorities are really messed up.

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  14. 14. leaturk 11:08 am 07/8/2011

    Looks like the US needs some good old fashioned socialism!

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  15. 15. grovewest 12:19 pm 07/8/2011

    If particle colliders and space telescopes make for good investments, then why aren’t the Chinese building them?

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  16. 16. jayjacobus 12:28 pm 07/8/2011

    Does the government know how to plan? Do they weigh costs againsts benefits? Do they consider every alternative?

    Can they effectively control quality, costs, schedules and productivity?

    Do they control the design and manufacturing processes?

    Effective technology can come from trial and error or it could come from effective management.

    When a project comes in over budget and way past schedule, poor management could be the villain. In fact, it’s almost certain a serious problem.

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  17. 17. femdominacija 1:33 pm 07/8/2011

    Does the USA want to a leader in astrophysics, physics and sciences or does it prefer to be a leader in jurisprudence? Does the USA want to graduate engineers ready for unemployment and lawyers ready for lucrative careers? Without large tech projects, engineering talents rots unused. Then when there is need for engineering talent, request for trained foreign engineers on H1 and L1 visas skyrockets while USA unemployed engineers are busy sending resumes.

    Canceling the James Webb Space Telescope is a symptom of a legislation dominated by lawyers and economists who cannot see the underlying benefits of high tech projects.

    Why not transfer the budget of the James Webb Space Telescope to the war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Data from the James Webb Space Telescope could be used by astrologers in those countries to improve their horoscopes

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  18. 18. femdominacija 1:34 pm 07/8/2011

    Does the USA want to a leader in astrophysics, physics and sciences or does it prefer to be a leader in jurisprudence? Does the USA want to graduate engineers ready for unemployment and lawyers ready for lucrative careers? Without large tech projects, engineering talents rots unused. Then when there is need for engineering talent, request for trained foreign engineers on H1 and L1 visas skyrockets while USA unemployed engineers are busy sending resumes.

    Canceling the James Webb Space Telescope is a symptom of a legislation dominated by lawyers and economists who cannot see the underlying benefits of high tech projects.

    Why not transfer the budget of the James Webb Space Telescope to the war effort in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Data from the James Webb Space Telescope could be used by astrologers in those countries to improve their horoscopes

    Link to this
  19. 19. co2dog 4:42 pm 07/8/2011

    Hey, this is a cut of 9%. … NINE PERCENT. Where is the other 91% spent???? Typical bureaucratic thinking: cut something that everyone wants while the rest of the budget is allocated to the garbage the bureaucrats want. Stop doing something else but keep the Hubble replacement.
    If it’s mismanaged, get some real managers to run the project. Most scientist can’t manage and mission creep is the biggest problem. Remember it was General Compton who kept the Manhattan project on track not Oppenheimer.
    When things are tough, cut out the garbage and the fun and games junk. Show us where the other 91% is going.

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  20. 20. hungry doggy 5:14 pm 07/8/2011

    We are at the end of an era for scientific research. The country is 14 trillion dollars in debt and scientific research is an easy target for cuts. I suspect that we are going to see funding for many worthy science projects cut or eliminated, a lot of unemployed scientists and engineers, and a competitive scramble for whatever research dollars are left. It will most likely start slowly at first and will start with the big bucks projects like this one, and then each year the funding will be cut further and further. As the easy funding dries up, the universities will eventually reduce their PhD programs because of a lack of resources and because of aspiring students who come to realize that there are no jobs for them.

    While I personally believe that scientific research is important, reduced funding appears to be the future of science. Like I said, scientific funding is an easy target when you have a 14 trillion dollar debt. This may very well be the end of an era in science.

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  21. 21. alan6302 7:55 pm 07/8/2011

    Make sure it is launched after the big CME event that is predicted. 2013

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  22. 22. debu 11:03 pm 07/8/2011

    Read balloon inside balloon theory of matter and antimatter universe on opposite entropy path producing gravitoethertons at common boundary by annihilation and injected into our universe as DARK MATTER AND ENERGY to give us gravity and other laws and constants in non uniform manner in non uniform universe. Therefore in this non uniform dynamism and bigger than we presently think is beyond our capacity for any observatory as we approach the boundary the flow of gravitoethertons obscure our optical or even x-ray technique . I requested U.S. GOVT. to divert more funds on BASIC RESEARCH IN NEW PHYSICS BEYOND NEWTON AND EINSTEIN and if required stop space flights as well as space observatories. SO PLEASE READ MY THEORIES TO UNDERSTAND THE NEW FUND ALLOCATION BY US.GOVT FOR SCIENCE RESEARCH.

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  23. 23. geojellyroll 7:30 pm 07/10/2011

    Shuttle missions averaged out to 1.5 billion. The ones to Hubble 2 billion.

    t
    Thank god the Shuttle is now dead. It drained the space budget of actual real scoence like this telescope.

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  24. 24. space-sailor 5:20 pm 07/11/2011

    I liked the motto of the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO) … before NASA cancelled it: "Great civilizations do great things".

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  25. 25. rrocklin 6:34 pm 07/14/2011

    We have spent more building infrastructure in Afghanistan than will be spent on the Web. Things have to be cut but the priorities in the US are crazy.

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  26. 26. hooterb 8:00 pm 07/17/2011

    I have first-hand knowledge of how the astronomical community "let" this happen and how the costs ballooned in the first place.

    First, leaders in the astronomical community went along with the ridiculous cost estimates and the waste because they felt that any bad news for JWST would jeopardize the mission and there was no way that the budget could be used to fund other missions anyway (notice that they are still saying we should save the mission because of this same logic).

    I heard this sentiment over and over and over during the past 10 years of the project. Also, one of the official astronomy "watchdogs" over the mission, STScI, repeatedly told their employees to look the other way as GSFC squandered project money by having everyone and their mother charge the JWST project code in a series of endless engineering meetings on designs that were going to have to be redone by the real builders down the road (the contractors). We were told, "this is the way great missions get built, if you can’t stand to see sausage get made, then go do something else." This reminds me of the bankers who were handcuffed in the perp-walk on TV, explaining, "Well, everybody was doing this, so it must be ok."

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  27. 27. WizeHowl 7:01 am 10/18/2011

    As an Australian I am really annoyed that our government which has supposedly done such a great job in GFC (which they haven’t) has done nothing towards anything the US does in this area.
    Why can’t countries like Australia dig in to their pockets and be a part of this important project, it is after all for the benefit of all mankind.

    Link to this

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