Fans of the beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope — the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope — will be sad to hear that “a new independent cost analysis shows it will take another $3.6 billion to get the telescope ready to fly in 2018.” For those keeping tabs on the final bill, we’re looking at a total mission cost of $8.7 billion by now, putting the project’s future in peril yet again.
This news comes at a time of deep budget cuts and Congressional opposition. The Obama administration has already asked Federal agencies, NASA among them, to plan for 10 percent cuts to their budget effective Oct. 1, 2012. And last month, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee recommended the Webb telescope project be scrapped altogether — a recommendation that was quickly approved by the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
This isn’t a question of whether the project is scientifically valuable; it is brute economics that threatens to derail the mission entirely. True, the project has suffered from poor management and large cost over-runs at a time when funding is especially tight. It’s fair to ask NASA to justify the hefty price tag. And I get the need for national belt-tightening, I really do, but I still come down firmly on the side of science in this instance, as do many others.
The latest to speak up for the JWST is Scott Willoughby, guest-blogging at Scientific American. Willoughly has a vested interest, as the vice president and program manager for the JWST program at Northrup-Grummon contracted by NASA to build the thing. But he still makes a strong argument in favor of the mission, citing the creation of high-tech jobs in the aerospace industry — currently facing a potential shortage as the older generation of scientists and engineers retire — and improvements in MRI technology for cancer imaging, for starters.
Then there’s the inevitable spinoff technologies that result from project of this size and scope, including infrared instruments and temperature control systems, not to mention optics. For instance, anyone who wears corrective lenses or is considering laser surgery for vision correction will be thrilled to hear that all that work developing the JWST’s 18 mirrors and wavefront sensing technology has led to several new patents for making more accurate eye measurements and fabricating more precise contact lenses.
Willoughby ends by echoing Neil de Grasse Tyson’s comments about the power of the JWST (and Hubble, and the space program) to inspire people, particularly children, not to be afraid to dream, in hopes that many will want to become scientists and engineers themselves one day, and push the scientific frontier even further:
Or, to put it more bluntly: we can’t always just focus on the “suck”; sometimes we need a hefty dose of “awesome,” and the JWST can provide that.
Image: JWST’s prime mirrors undergoing tests (NASA)