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    Canceling The James Webb Space Telescope Redux
    By Hank Campbell | July 31st 2011 05:00 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

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    Science 2.0 favorite Lawrence Krauss of ASU tackled the James Webb Space Telescope issue on the Richard Dawkins website and a commenter there linked to my rationalization that canceling it might be okay, with the hasty disclaimer that he does not agree with what I write - the Dawkins site moderators, and perhaps Dawkins himself, have made their distaste for anyone outside the echo chamber well known so perhaps his rapid disavowal was necessary, though it seems odd Krauss would have the same concern, since he is an outreach guy rather than a religion basher worried about his site being overrun - but really, what is there to disagree with?

    Krauss is a bold communicator with fascinating insights, among the best - but his stuff in this case is just a rehash of the same weak arguments everyone who thinks no funding should ever be canceled already used and doesn't adequately address issues I mentioned.   The nebulous 'leadership' argument is invoked, for example, but really, who gives a crap about leadership?   Is the work of any scientist really impacted because Europe supposedly has leadership in physics now that they have a machine with higher luminosity than the US has?  Really, sound that out.  Higher luminosity means leadership.  Really?  

    There are plenty of mysteries in physics that can be solved that don't involve higher and higher energy and what happens if there is no Higgs boson?  Will Europe not have physics leadership because they spent $15 billion to find out we now don't know what to find?   How much should a country spend to have leadership?   If you don't like the military budget of the US, then you may agree leadership for leadership sake alone has less and less value as costs rise.

    He also invokes 'first light' and maybe Dawkins readers are not as tuned into science as the Science 2.0 kind so that will fly.   The James Webb Space Telescope will not see first light, but it will let us see 250-400 million years after the Big Bang whereas the Hubble Space Telescope sees back to only 800 million years.   It has a value, to be sure, but that value is finite.   After it exceeds its value the question becomes, is that the only project left in astronomy, the way some particle physicists advocating the LHC insisted the Higgs was the only mystery left to solve (or, to get out of the physical sciences, biologists who told Congress for decades they could cure cancer)?  Or is the additional funding JWST would need actually going to crowd out other projects? We know that answer, astronomers not working on JWST expressed it for years about the Webb Telescope overruns and what it was costing space science overall.

    Finally, he invokes the "it is a drop in the bucket compared to X" argument.   This one really bugs people who pay taxes.  The space shuttle cost $200 billion and was generally an overhyped failure - many agree on that now but no one said it every year when it needed funding, the shuttle was always essential for science, we were told, except it did practically nothing for science and what it did could have been done by expendable rockets sending up robots.   'We wasted a lot on other projects claimed to be important so it's okay to waste some on this' is terrible reasoning.

    Most oddly is this argument, which I have seen nowhere else:
    But the potential loss of the JWST is far greater than just science. It is hard to think of a single NASA project, exceeding even the Mars Rovers, that has captured the imagination of the public, and in particular children, than the images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Space Telescope.
    If we want kids to see pretty pictures and go into science, we have to spend $7 billion?   I agree the Hubble has been valuable, just like the Tevatron has been valuable in physics - but the Tevatron value has not meant we needed to have a blank check for the SSC, especially when it was discovered no one knew how long it would take and if it would work at all.

    And that's the issue Krauss doesn't seem to address.  He says the JWST is, like he says about the SSC, "Well on the way to completion and after several billion" dollars spent but he is only half right in the comparison.  The SSC did spend a lot of money but was nowhere near even getting started much less being well on its way to completion.  It was a legendary boondoggle so outrageous a Democrat Congress and a Democrat president in love with spending money canceled it.

    The JWST is 70% complete - the easy 70% - but there are substantial engineering obstacles NASA has no idea how to overcome or how long it will take (the last analysis was demanded by a Democrat because of new overruns and time frames to finish a year ago) and they have shown they are incapable of managing a Big Science project today.  NASA has become a job works program happy with a joint confidence level of 50%.

    Pres. Obama also canceled the Constellation project for many of the same reasons.  The president has no confidence in NASA, Congress has no confidence in NASA.  Astronomers love NASA, the space program may be why they went into science so that is understandable, but they love it because they have never known anything better.

    If you can ignore the tiresome "I blame the tea party" commenters who infect the place at the Dawkins site, a few people have some keen insights into what has gone wrong.  It's easy to see, to outsiders.   Talk to old NASA guys and then ask younger ones about how NASA operates today - they know what the problem is; budgets are underestimated and benefits are overestimated , with the goal being to get enough money spent it becomes too expensive to cancel - exactly the argument Krauss makes as to why JWST should go on.

    That said, if it isn't going to ruin space science funding for other projects, I'd like to see it get built - but canceling it may be the only way NASA learns to make realistic projections.

    Comments

    It is a sad thing for me to say (having grown up in the sputnik days), I believe that NASA is very nearly dead.

    If you're going to use the Hubble as a model, you should survey the entirety of its successes. The Hubble recently completed its millionth scientific observation. It has found new planets, new moons, new galaxies, even new classes of astronomical phenomena. Recently it identified a (still unnamed) fourth moon for Pluto. When the New Horizons probe arrives safely in the Kuiper Belt, it will be because of surveys performed with Hubble.

    Everybody has their own agenda for the Webb. My preference would be to use it to examine the many new exoplanets found by the Kepler mission. Kepler can identify probable new planets but in no sense can it image them. Gaining a fairer understanding of what the Webb could be used for is a reasonable prerequisite to deciding if it is worth funding.

    Beyond that, there is an implied agreement between NASA and the larger astronomical community which is contributing to and working on the Webb. Recently the US pulled funding for a joint Mars mission with ESA (European Space Agency) so now ESA is forced to rethink its own mission plans, budgets, contingencies. If we consistently prove ourselves to be an unreliable partner, no one else will trust us enough to work with us.

    Hank
    Like 'leadership', being 'reliable' regarding funding an aerospace project seems too vague a metric.   France is 'unreliable' to much of the world but this does not prevent them from having value in ESA.

    The Hubble had its own travails early on, which had naysayers lamenting the cost, but it has recovered nicely.   Its problems were known, and it was known what had to be done to fix them.   Advocates are glossing over the truth, that NASA and its subcontractors do not know how to do some of the things JWST is supposed to be able to do, which means today's cost may balloon even more over the next 4 years and be pushed out even further.  It was supposed to be done by now originally.  

    Constellation was pulled for the same reason.  NASA was created to do a mission (NASA replaced NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and it did it well but then found a way to make itself perpetual, even if it can no longer do the jobs it once could.  It may be that NASA should be replaced by a new mission-oriented agency that oversees private groups rather than doing them directly, to avoid all of the bureaucracy being a government group brings.   
    Um - NASA does oversee private groups. James Webb's primary contractor is Northrup Grumman. Ball Aerospace is primary for Kepler. Perkin-Elmer and Lockeed did for Hubble.

    And this notion that every branch of government is filled with welfare mothers eating bonbons on the public dole is not just insulting but an unfounded argument. Take a look at the people working at places like NASA, NIST, NIH, the national labs. They're generally talented, driven people doing work they believe in, at far below the market rates. Or work that simply isn't done in the commercial sector. The coming commercial space industry simply would not exist, for instance, if not for prior work done under the auspices of governments.

    Leadership certainly does have a value, as does being a reliable partner. Just because no one put a price sticker on it and offered to give you cash for it doesn't mean it has no value.

    Here - "The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space."

    But if its helpful to you, leadership in this case would mean gaining technical abilities ahead of others, and there may certainly be monetary advantages that arise from that. They may simply have a longer timeline than a quarterly corporate reporting schedule.

    Hank
    And this notion that every branch of government is filled with welfare mothers eating bonbons on the public dole is not just insulting but an unfounded argument
    The kooky fringe meter is now at condition orange.  

    This isn't a Rush Limbaugh site so stop taking the opportunity to act like Keith Olbermann.  If you work for NASA, say so.  Otherwise your comment is just conjecture and ridiculous hand-waving about some perceived threat to NASA remaining a job works program.  The review of JWST was ordered by a Maryland Democrat who was outraged at the waste - NASA does not like it but society should be happy about that.   If you're a special interest not happy about that, okay, your personal goals conflict with society.  If you are not a special interest, your comment makes no sense, since no one mentioned bonbons.

    But government workers do make substantially more than the private sector so if you are looking out for people, it must be corporate employees who deserve some welfare.
    It might not be a Rush Limbaugh site, but you're clearly pretty far to the right. A lot of your arguments are the same old ones heard from the "capitalism solves everything" sector that has been bemoaning the loss of child sweatshops for the past century.

    A telling piece of evidence is in this same post. "Government workers do make substantially more than the private sector" is clearly a matter of which jobs you're talking about. Let's talk about the scientists and engineers.

    For example, Ph.D. physicists make far more in private industry than in government labs. On the other hand, electrical engineers earn nearly identical salaries in industry and the private sector. Secretaries working for the federal government earn substantially more than their counterparts in industry.

    Hank
    If your prism is left, the center is the right.  So at least we have cleared up that your advocacy has nothing at all to do with science, technology, the welfare of the space program or anything except your progressive political agenda.   That's cool, I have been called left as many time as I have been called right - because I only care about science and not framing everything through partisan kookiness.
    You certainly deduce a lot about my "advocacy" from my post. My point on left vs. right is that the positions you post here are to the right of most of the scientific community and the public as far as scientific research goes. Whether your position is to the right or left of some particular person, like myself - who cares?

    If you only care about science, you wouldn't be pushing a hackneyed canard about government vs private pay when three seconds of Google research demonstrates that it is misleading in the current context.

    While it's good and well to say that NASA needs to make better predictions, it is much harder to predict technology development times on a cutting-edge piece of space hardware than it is for the Ford in your garage. The scientists and engineers are likely doing their best!

    Hank
    I agree, the problem is that the scientists and engineers were not factored into the claims to get it funded.  Engineers and scientists there do terrific work and they are stuck holding the bag on how to accomplish something a bureaucrat essentially made up.   Seriously, 50% confidence level of it working.   And now the bureaucrats wonder why it is delayed.
    50% confidence level? False.

    Fair disclaimer: not a NASA employee, but working in the civilian space industry.

    Global Hawk: currently running at $12 billion, and 100% over its original budget. I've yet to hear any congressperson express outrage about this affront to the taxpayers. It wouldn't take ten minutes' effort to google up a dozen similar examples from DoD and the intelligence community. I think its disingenuous to suggest that NASA is held to the same standards as the Pentagon.

    "[...]stuck holding the bag on how to accomplish something a bureaucrat essentially made up. Seriously, 50% confidence level of it working. " Can you show me a reference for this? I think a lot of people are working in good faith that its truly going to expand the frontiers of human knowledge, rather than be some CCC for physicists.