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    Webb Space Telescope - Why Congress May Be Right To Kill It
    By Hank Campbell | July 8th 2011 12:08 PM | 83 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

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    I've long said that what NASA needs is not a James Webb Space Telescope but an actual James Webb for the 21st century.

    Webb, if you are not familiar with NASA lore, was a bold leader rather than a bureaucrat tasked with perpetuating funding, and it was due to his leadership that NASA launched 75 missions into space, including putting a man on the Moon.

    The telescope named after him is instead very much a product of modern NASA - its benefit and time to completion were overestimated and its funding requirement underestimated.  The belief in much of modern Big Science is once you get initial funding it becomes too expensive to not complete so issuing a reasonable number for appropriations comes before honesty.  And then ethical researchers and engineers are stuck holding the bag.

    It isn't Republicans who launched the latest volley of concern about JWST but new Chairman Hal Rogers is a Republican, so the partisan shills in science writing will make it a "Republicans hate science" issue but the report was ordered by Senator Barbara Mikulski, an outraged Maryland Democrat, last year.

    People who circle the wagons around every bit of funding (see Shrimp On A Treadmill) will say you can't ever cut funding.     They worry that if America cancels this successor to the Hubble we will lose 'leadership' in astronomy, the same way they claim we lost 'leadership' in physics by canceling the Superconducting SuperCollider, despite the fact that there was no indication it would even be completed today - or how it would have worked.  It was a goal, not a specification for engineers.


    Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. It has been delayed for almost as long as we have been here and now it is out to 2015 at the earliest. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

    The Webb telescope has likewise been a black hole for funding.    In James Webb Space Telescope delivers more bad news last year I noted that the budget was up to $6.5 billion and now an earliest completion date of 2015, though its original claim was it would be done by now.

    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.    

    The idea behind the Webb Telescope is a great one - continuing the work started by Hubble and  Webb will be able to see light from about 250-400 million years after the Big Bang whereas the Hubble Space Telescope sees back to only 800 million years.   It sounds esoteric to the public but there are fascinating things we can learn.  However, science has to have a cost attached to a value, basic research or not.  This is what killed the SSC.

    Those who compare the Webb Telescope to losing the SSC should take note - canceling the SSC made the much more reasonable, both in cost and engineering, Large Hadron Collider (LHC) a reality.    Did it give Europe some ethereal, unquantifiable 'leadership' in physics?   No, lots of projects are still done in the US and Japan but the task of finding the Higgs boson, which may not even exist, and its press has fallen to Europe.   America still contributes and its knowledge will benefit all scientists, just like the Tevatron in the US has helped all scientists worldwide.

    It may be that canceling the JWST will be the wake-up call NASA has needed for a long time.   The Obama administration already pulled the plug on the Constellation project and it may be time to do two things that are painful in the short term but essential for space science in the long term:

    First, fund smaller projects that don't have big engineering issues and are achievable.  

    Second, make missions time-based, get back to 'acceptable risk' and allow NASA to shuck off the modern 'zero defects' mentality and the tentacles of bureaucracy and regulatory constraints that infect much of government-funded science.

    Creating bold missions where project managers use a 'joint confidence level' of 50% are not going to work in a time of budget concerns.   Let's hope the science community takes this warning shot as a chance to get fundamental reform in how science is done.

    Comments

    Hank
    The important thing I want to note is that the impact of a cost overrun on one large project that has been mismanaged has a devastating impact on many, many smaller projects that will have to be denied funding.  Congress will not pad NASA's budget and reward them for mismanagement, instead NASA will have to fight to keep JWST and penalize a lot of researchers who have done nothing wrong.

    $1.5 billion can fund a lot of manageable, smaller projects and the thousands of scientists who would be harmed by that loss of funding should be factored into the JWST discussion - something that has not been done yet.
    There are two serious misconceptions here that make this a strawman argument.

    First, there are not 5,000 astronomers waiting to propose 300K projects (5000*300,000 = 1.5 billion) in an environment where there is no flagship observatory in the optical/NIR. Canceling JWST would not make them spring instantly into being either. There *is* a large base of users of Hubble, Spitzer, etc. waiting to push back the frontiers with the next great observatory, which is JWST. Each of these operating facilities supports cutting-edge research by a large user community, all of whom compete to win time to use the best thing there is on their "small projects" and who are supported by operating funds to do so. You can't convert one big, boundary-pushing project into 5,000 little ones and get anything like the same revolutionary return because the new capability isn't there.

    Moreover, it is clear from the House panel that they are not returning the money saved by zeroing out JWST to science - it will disappear from science, from NASA, never to be seen again. So your 5,000 green shoot will never sprout.

    JWST is expensive, and it has been mismanaged, but finishing it will advance science and killing it will not.

    Hank
    Can it be finished?  As I noted, it has now been delayed for as many years as we have been in existence and they are not close.   They have done some basic stuff but there are crucial engineering issues that seem to rely on a miracle breakthrough that will happen in the future - and it will cost another $1.5 billion to even know what they still don't know.

    I disagree with your assertion that astronomers only work for NASA but it is pointless to argue - you can search this site and find any number of instances where NASA was scooped by 'amateurs'.  The SETI project is not NASA.   GalaxyZoo was not created by NASA.    Science 2.0 is putting a satellite into space and making music from the ionosphere and beaming it to Earth for musicians to sample and use.   Again, it cost US taxpayers nothing.    The assertion that all science costs billions of dollars and all scientists work for the government is a hoax perpetuated by NASA lobbyists whose mission is to get funding for NASA.
    The SETI project is a risible waste of private money, but thankfully they finally seem to be dying. The Science 2.0 satellite is a hilarious idea - proof that private organizations too can put poetry in zoos and shrimp on treadmills. Good job on conning your donors on that one.

    Galaxy Zoo was great, but they ran out of SDSS data quickly. Now they do little but use NASA images - Planet Hunters uses Kepler, GZ: Hubble uses Hubble, Moon Zoo uses LRO, Solar Stormwatch uses STEREO, the Milky Way Project uses Spitzer, Ice Hunters is for New Horizons, etc. (Don't forget that some projects use data from telescopes paid for by other governments.)

    LauraHult
    Amen to the concept of funding smaller, better-managed, and more efficient research, Hank.  But I fear that government's addiction to spending coupled with the "It's NASA" mantra is going to be a tough fight.  Even tougher will be the ideological shift necessary to allow free-enterprise a significant role in scientific research and exploration.
    LHC research is not focused only on Higgs. Higgs is a small part of the whole 20 years program.

    "Did it give Europe some ethereal, unquantifiable 'leadership' in physics? "

    Yes. Europe has GSI, GANIL, CERN, Grenoble, Jyväskylä, Maks Plank Institute, Grand Sasso, ....
    All these are top leadership facilities.

    Hank
    That's a subjective assessment and all of the other stuff the LHC will do came up after they got the funding by focusing on the SM and Higgs.   SLAC, Brookhaven, the proton project at Fermi are also physics leadership unless you have a luminosity fetish and think the LHC is the only physics experiment in the world.
    SLAC was closed two-three years ago. About RHIC...will be the only collider that US has after Tevatron closure. Fermilab will be focused on neutrinos and dark matter/energy research.

    LHC is not the greatest, but you forgot that Europe has another three unique facilities: GSI, GANIL, and Jyväskylä. All three facilities which explore nuclear astrophysics reactions and GSI is currently building a new collider FAIR. FAIR is heavy-ion collider similar to RHIC, but it has unique 238U beams. These beams provide possibilities for studying hadron matter close to neutron star conditions. There isn't any other facility like FAIR in the world. Japan has RIKEN, which is the closest facility to FAIR. US has the FRIB project, the biggest competitor to FAIR, but if US government doesn't put fundamental science as top priority, then Europe is the leader in this cutting edge research.
    Meanwhile, GSI has not only fundamental research, but also research with medical applications, plasma physics, etc. Germany has spent 2 billion euros for the GIS/FAIR project, it is a serous business. US competitor to FAIR has had initial budget $1 billion, but Bush cut the budget to $600 million.
    Since Bush, US loses step by step the competition with Europe, because he spent all money in Iraq, creating trillion dollar debt.

    Hank
    I don't see how nationalism in science is superior to nationalism in the military - only military people do, and militant people in science.   Why is dominance for the sake of dominance important in the area you not like and not the area they like?  

    These examples you cite are really obscure, niche applications.   Tevatron will be used for proton experiments that are quite interesting and SLAC is used for the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) but I do not cite them as leading edge in anything, like you try to do with Jyväskylä.

    Bush has been gone for three years - Obama canceled Constellation and will cancel JWST, it has nothing to do with Bush so continuing to blame him for all the ills of the world is ridiculous, unless you give Reagan credit for the Clinton years.    Bush did not engage in imperialism in Libya, nor did he commit to keeping troops in Iraq past this year - that is all Obama.    The debt from the 'stimulus' Democrats legislated in one year was far higher than Bush's military action over 8 years.

    Really, it's silly to contend this one project means America does not care about basic science.   America is 6% of the world population and 32% of the science output.   Keeping JWST without any accountability would mean no research project should ever have a milestone or metric for success again.
    "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."

    This would be a valid point if it weren't completely false. The money that is being "saved" by canceling JWST isn't going to fund anything in space science, it's being taken away from NASA for good.

    So you're against funding the SSC, the Constellation project and now JWST...I am curious if you also would have been one of those saying we should just cancel the Hubble once it turned out the telescope had a case of astigmatism. Hubble has been one of NASA's greatest successes, next to the moon landing, so it would have been short-sighted then to say "cancel it, it's a waste of money", just as it is short-sighted now to cancel JWST.

    Hank
    I wasn't against funding the Constellation, Obama was.   And he canceled it, not me.  If you know anything about the SSC you know it was even more futuristic than the LHC, which had numerous delays and overruns even 15 years after the SSC.    You may feel like spending someone else's money foolishly is okay, they will just find more magically.  I would prefer it go toward actual science and not padding the bottom lines of contractors.
    It cost far more to fix Hubble's "astigmatism" than it would have to simply build and launch a new one. This was true of every "repair" and "refurbishment" of Hubble and the primary cause was the cost of using the shuttle for the missions. Hubble was put in a low-Earth orbit specifically to enable astronauts to do refurbishment, but at the cost of a whopping increase in operations costs and complexity. I'm in favor of completing JWST because we need the big astronomical facilities. What I'm not in favor of is looking at NASA as a jobs program for political districts, which is exactly how each and every Member of Congress and the Senate has seen it for a very long time. There is a role for big science, and we should do it with the right motivations -- otherwise I think we're guaranteed to waste a lot of money.

    This is a great post Hank, we (myself included) are starstruck when NASA is involved, due to the huge science and engineering successes of the '60-early '80. The advancement of science should be a global goal and issue, and I feel CERN and LHC are great multinational successes, and its rather laymen media that focus on the Higgs boson (or that cringe term, "the god particle")

    NASA needs to reinvent itself as a leader in scientific research again, and change this image of a bloated, bureaucratic US agency. It needs bold thinking men and women to push the science and engineering boundaries again, and I'm sure, it has those people.

    Make your minds up guys. Either you are a failed socio political economic system that owes $132k per tax payer to the rest of the world that isn't going to get paid back or you are not a failed third world country as you suggest and are still capable of advancing civilisation by challenging and expensive scientific projects. Internal conflicts begin to suggest that you have lost the plot and that you are a bunch of losers that the rest of us should steer well clear of.. Should I be learning mandarin to follow the future?

    Hank
    When I was young it was Brazil that was going to own the future because of population and resources.   I fail to understand (because I am American and apparently genetically inferior to residents of whatever country you are endorsing in your weird nationalist diatribe) what an experiment in socialism and its resulting debt has to do with JWST.   It's a highwater mark in mismanagement, to be sure, but hardly an indictment of all science, which is majority funded by the government.   America - as stupid as we are compared to residents of whatever country you are endorsing in your weird nationalist diatribe - still produce 32% of the world's science with a much smaller fraction of the world population.   One project being pulled does not change that, just like pulling the SSC did not change that.
    "Should I be learning mandarin to follow the future?"

    That should work as well as learning Japanese in the 80s and Arabic in the 70s. They were sure to have all the future's money.

    The author is correct in many of his findings and suggestions, however he has failed to grasp the totality of the situation and why his solution space is valid. As an employee with knowledge of both JW and Constellation I can tell you that NASA, as it exists today, is incapable managing any large project. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is a culture that is terribly frightened by risk and risk takers. The end result is group ignorance, a seemingly endless ability to ignore and not speak of what is important lest we have to deal with it. This is compounded by the intermingling of technical risk, with budget risk, with political risk, and most importantly personal career risk. In the end the only acceptable NASA management solution is to call a meeting where no one speaks of the issues but the collectively agree to accept the risk. Once done they live by the mantra, if everyone is responsible,...no one is.

    The second major problem with NASA is that any large project is first and foremost a jobs program for the NASA Centers. Redundant layers of management and engineering are the life blood of the NASA workforce and the entire Agency believes that their first responsibility is to create jobs not build spacecraft. This is most clearly evident in the recent Constellation debacle where we could not recreate Apollo technology 30 years hence. Supposedly because the project was underfunded. However, I would put forward that in real budget terms the projects were not that dissimilar in funding; what was truly different in the present case is NASA's need to fund infrastructure and people before work and a slavish development process bent upon creating shared guilt from the outset rather than letting line and management take the necessary steps in a timely fashion to complete the task.

    As long as NASA exists in its present form with its present management and culture it will continue its death spiral. No amount of public funding can spare an Agency from ignominy if it truly is hell bent on self-destruction.

    Pardon me an emotional diatribe, but my blood begins to boil. We spent trillions to bail out banks, and for certain billions of that have been wasted and lined the pockets of lawyers and bankers. We spend billions to kill people for oil which will last only a few decades more. How can we not spend a much lesser amount for something that has a chance to benefit mankind. It strikes me at first as a senseless, self-righteous, and outrageously mean-spirited attempt at making some crude point about bureaucracy in modern science. But I would say even more than that...because such arguments only point the finger back to you...it is the same kind of lazy action that a true bureacrat would take. NASA may have problems but has also stepped up to the plate numerous times and made invaluable progress for mankind. it needs reform though intelligent and incisive actions to keep it fulfilling those priceless gifts it has brought, not mindnumbingly lazy, bureacratic, and authoritarian actions like killing such a valuable project.

    Hank
    Throwing more money at problems is not really a good solution, though I get your point.  No one is killing NASA and this is just one project.   NASA does smaller projects all of the time but they are projects that do not require miraculous levels of engineering improvements in order to be completed.

    Seriously, how many billions would you spend on anything with a 50% confidence level of ever working and knowing the best people were not going to be picked to do important jobs, but contractors were going to be picked based on lots of non-engineering and -capability criteria?   Would you continue to pump billions into bank bailouts you don't like if they had failed so far and there was only a 50% chance of them ever working?

     The NASA you remember, and that inspired many of us to love science, was not hampered by these modern layers of red tape.    Like I said, NASA launches things all of the time and they do quite well.   Like the SSC in physics, this was bold but lacked a real plan.     Time + Magic = JWST is not really a spec.    Yes, it will work eventually (of course) but, like sending a rocket to Alpha Centauri, spending billions to send one today on a hundred year trip when it will be passed by one we send in 80 years anyway doesn't make much sense.
    Dear Hank, much of what you write is wise. "Science partisans" who fight for every penny are painful fucking parasitic assholes (I hope that my quote is accurate) whose main achievement is to lower the quality standards in science arbitrarily and bring countries closer to defaults; James Webb deserves to be associated with a smoother, higher benefits-per-costs project; the LHC is a more cleverly done collider than the SSC was, and so on.

    However, there are some obvious points you want to deny.

    By moving the key events from the U.S. to the LHC, America has indisputably lost its top position in high-energy physics. By now, the SSC would surely have produced lots of data if it had not been canceled. You really have doubts about it? And also, there are some projects that can't be made too much smaller or cheaper, at least no one knows of a safe way to do so. This is the "Big Science". It's being identified with the "Big Government" and obviously, there are similarities in the funding. But much of America of the 20th century was about "Big Science" and "Big Technology". That's how it defeated the Soviet Union and communism. It may sound paradoxical but it is true.

    The money is being wasted for much more outrageous things. $1.5 billion is a preposterously low entry e.g. relatively to the money that is being wasted for the "fight against global warming", a completely non-existent problem where the Big Government is *actually* growing in recent years.

    Hank
    By moving the key events from the U.S. to the LHC, America has indisputably lost its top position in high-energy physics. By now, the SSC would surely have produced lots of data if it had not been canceled. You really have doubts about it? 
    Since the SSC would have made the LHC unnecessary, and its goal was bold and no one knew how to make it, I am not even sure it would have been completed yet, much less be producing the data it was supposed to produce.

    I agree America lost some standing in some aspects of HEP but I don't have the luminosity fetish a lot of researchers do so I don't think it's that crucial - plenty of interesting physics does not rely on luminosity, though I agree the world is keen to have answers on Higgs.    The world will need an ILC to interpret what the LHC finds anyway so perhaps America will do that but given the travails of the LHC, perhaps not.

    On your last point, sure, lots of countries waste lots of money on things various people find unpalatable - and no snowflake in avalanche takes any blame - but we can't compare one funding project to the dumbest thing a government does (plastic spoons made from corn, etc.) and I prefer to focus on more positive things, namely that NASA does a lot of fine work that isn't BIG and those shouldn't be penalized in future budgets to save a big project that will be rather obscure to most people.

    Penalizing NASA is a bipartisan effort, as I noted - the JWST report was demanded by a Democrat when they still had control of Congress.  When both sides agree something is wrong, something must really be wrong.
    lumidek
    Dear Hank, what would the LHC have to do with the SSC? Of course that the SSC would be completed regardless of other projects in the world. The LHC was also completed even though it made the Tevatron worthless. And what?...

    You're completely deluded if you think that the loss of America's power in experimental high-energy physics is about "luminosity fetish". The primary thing isn't luminosity; the primary thing is *energy*. That's why the field is called high-energy physics. The LHC has only accumulated 1.3/fb per detector - 6 times less than the Tevatron - but it has already surpassed in the Tevatron's ability to extend our knowledge of physics, usually by many orders of magnitude. The LHC's main advantage is the higher energy, not luminosity.

    But of course, luminosity also matters to some extent. Experimental particle physics *is* about a high energy and high luminosity; it is about the luminosity and energy fetish. You can't be a leader in experimental particle physics if you lack luminosity or energy or both.

    The world "will need an ILC to interpret LHC's findings so America...". This is a very loaded statement. The LHC will interpret lots of things itself and the ILC won't be a universal interpreter that may interpret everything that others can't. It's just a slightly different fucking collider. But it is not a universal cure or a universal searcher for the truth. What you write about the ILC is just irrational fetish. Moreover, it's conceivable that the ILC will be in Europe, too.

    You don't want to focus on the biggest items in the U.S. budget. That's too bad because those are things that matter most for the budget. If you think that NASA should become a Cinderella who will only get pieces of garbage that the other, more "important" people - like the global warming alarmist scum - leave after their dinner, then you can be sure that America will lose its top position in space research permanently, too.

    "When both sides agree something is wrong, something must really be wrong."

    You're joking, aren't you? Are you really this kind of brainwashed gullible sheep who listens to the "leaders" in this "must" way? The Democrat Party and the GOP have historically agreed on so many bullshit things that I am amazed that you haven't noticed yet. Why don't you move to North Korea that is organized along this principle? Why the fuck does it matter what a fucked up bitch from the Democrat Party - who is even a woman to make things worse - thinks about a technical project in NASA?

    "_ future budgets to save a big project that will be rather obscure to most people."

    Do you mean JWST? You're joking, right? JWST is supposed to be a replacement for the Hubble which is one of the most "publicly comprehensible" things done by NASA because it produces pictures that look thrilling to the laymen. All other scientific projects in NASA are actually much more obscure to the average people than JWST. I mean those that do subtle investigations of the Universe in other parts of the spectrum, gravitational waves, and so on, and so on.

    Even if I agreed that most of the Americans find even as down-to-Earth projects as JWST too obscure, why does it matter? NASA can't build its standards according to the lowest, most stupid and limited 200 million of the Americans. It has never done so. NASA isn't meant to reproduce the intelligence or interests of the average Americans. That's why the term "rocket scientist" has been used to denote people who are not "infinitely far below a string theorist" when it comes to their IQs - as opposed to those collecting toll on the Golden Gate Bridge.


    This populism of yours really sucks.
    I don't know. I think a truly enlightened civilization would be willing to spend ten times as much in the midst of a Depression ten times as worse, in order for have a sliver or a sliver of a chance to find something truly wonderful and new about the universe...like to know more about the origins of our existence or to find the possibility for life on another world. I think we are taking for granted the tremendous opportunities we have now that we have never had, in the past, and perhaps may never have again, if we do not take such chances like we could have with the SSC or now with the James Webb Telescope. We waste much much more money on non-productive wars and frivolous entertainment.

    Gerhard Adam
    It seems that people are talking about many different problems from many different perspectives and failing to hone in on precisely what the issue is.

    In the first place, no amount of money can produce success in an organization that is incapable of formulating a workable plan for success.  So, it is entirely proper to "pull the plug" on a project that can't succeed.  Having said that, it is a different issue to consider how such an agency should be re-shaped so that it is capable of innovation and dealing with riskier ventures.  Like with so many things, the U.S. tends to be governed by the media and a fickle public.  As a result, our leadership and our agencies reflect that risk aversion since any problems will invariably result in "over-the-top" reporting and blame setting.  No one can speak the truth, because it will be spun in so many ways that it will disappear within the first nanoseconds of being broadcast.

    So at this juncture, the U.S. is primarily involved in bickering for nonsensical political and social opinions so that one side can paint the other as intrinsically more evil than the other.  Until the U.S. regains its perspective as a society, then it will compete with itself until the last remnants of it go extinct.  In the end, the final problem is that the U.S. has lost all sense of value, both for itself, its citizens, and its potential because they've simply come to believe their own bullshit about economics.  Money can never be the sole basis for existing and yet this has become the default position of every policy being enacted.  Everything has a price, but nothing has any value.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The problem here is emotion is triumphing over logic - as it often does in politics. The fact that the JWT is over budget and behind schedule is actually irrelevant. In business that is termed a sunk cost - there is nothing you can do about it, you can only move forward. Sure, people might get fired for their incompetence and mismanagement, but that doesn't mean the project necessarily dies. The fate of the project should instead determined by: A.) Is there still a need for the project? B.) How much time and effort going forward will it cost me to get to completion? and C.) Given limited resources and the answers to A & B, does the project still have sufficient priority for me to expend the necessary resources to get to completion?

    Say you are building a house worth $400K and the contractor tells you it will take $300K and 6 months to build it. Two years and $1.5 million later, you still don't have a house, but you almost do. You get a best estimate that it will take another 4 months and $50K to complete, at which time you will have a house worth $400K. If you don't complete the house, you will have a partially completed structure worth nothing. Should you complete the project? Emotion would say that you don't complete the house because you've already spent $1.5 million on a $400K house and you are not going to give that thieving contractor another dime. You'll show him. Logic says that the past is irrelevant - it only looks forward and says I can get a $400K house for $50K or I can spend nothing and get nothing. Which sounds like a better deal?

    This is not to say there aren't other actions to take. Perhaps you switch contractors to complete the project. Perhaps you keep the same guy because he can provide the best price because he's familiar with the project. Maybe you sue him for fraud after the project is done. Etc, etc. Still the question has to be where are we, what is it going to cost going forward, and what benefits will we get. As long as futures benefits exceed future costs, you proceed.

    What is the answer for the JWT? Beats me - I don't have that expertise. But to cancel the JWT out of a desire to punish NASA for past mistakes is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Keeping the JWT because we've already spent a ton of money is likewise foolish - tossing good money after bad. Instead, deal with past mistakes by punishing the guilty parties and compare future expenditures to future benefits, factoring in the risk of failure, of course. That is how you decide if we keep or cut JWT - nothing more, nothing less.

    Gerhard Adam
    Emotion would say that you don't complete the house because you've already spent $1.5 million on a $400K house and you are not going to give that thieving contractor another dime. You'll show him. Logic says that the past is irrelevant - it only looks forward and says I can get a $400K house for $50K or I can spend nothing and get nothing. Which sounds like a better deal?
    What kind of logic is that?  You don't get a $400K house for $50K.  You get a $400K house for $1.5 million plus change, assuming that the guy that overran the budget by 500% has magically become trustworthy.   Sunk cost or not, the reality of whether the project can actually be completed is definitely a major factor and that hasn't been established with the JWT.  In addition, at the bare minimum, the project should be halted, until a major reorganization has taken place because it is clear that those currently in charge, are clueless and incapable of determining what is actually  necessary.

    Just as your house example ... anyone dumb enough to spend 500% over their initial estimate is incapable of determining whether an additional $50K would finish the job.  More to the point .... if history repeats, then why would you believe that $50K would be sufficient?d

    NASA isn't being punished.  They are being treated exactly as they deserve ... basically as an organization that has demonstrated they are no longer capable of managing a project of this scope.  Until there is a rock-solid plan to proceed from someone ... the project should not continue to receive funding.  This isn't emotional, this is the only logical step to take.  The logic you're suggesting is precisely why it's in the mess than it is.
    The fact that the JWT is over budget and behind schedule is actually irrelevant. In business that is termed a sunk cost - there is nothing you can do about it, you can only move forward.
    Which is why so many businesses also fail and get in trouble.  There is something you can do about it.  You can stop spending money that you will never recover.  Even using your example of the house, the reality is that your house will be completed with a $1.5 million dollar deficit, or a $1.1 million dollar deficit (assuming that suddenly everything goes perfectly).  Therefore, the only question that remains is whether that $1.5 million dollar deficit could go even higher if the additional $50K is insufficient.  If so, then your example falls apart. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm sorry Gerhard, but your ridiculing of the concept of 'sunk costs' is wrong.

    The concept of sunk costs is a widely accepted and taught term in 1st year economics courses that is a sound way to evaluate how to approach making future decisions. The poster you are responding to illustrated the logic beyond how to evaluate moving forward on the Webb telescope very appropriately.

    Before you get all reactionary again, do realize that approaching this problem from the perspectives of opportunity costs and sunk costs does not mean that your position that Webb shouldn't be funded is invalid, as the original poster pointed out.

    I don't know the engineering and scientific intricacies of the James Webb Telescope, but the decision over whether to grant it future funding to be produced must be weighed with the perspective of sunk costs in mind.

    Sunk costs *is not* an excuse to justify prior poor decisions or to cover for them. By all means any mistakes or problems caused by past actions *should* be immediately acted on and weighted in future decisions...

    It seems your objection has to do more with your skepticism of internal NASA incompetency rather than a disagreement over sunk costs. If you have good, verifiable facts at your side that can demonstrate that the current costs NASA has put forward for finishing the project are wrong, then that's not a problem with sunk costs, it's a problem with where you're getting your information.

    But if the new spending requests by NASA are realistic and verifiable, then we should be approaching the decision of whether or not to fund from the opportunity costs of that additional funding and benefit derived ONLY, we should not be resenting past failures and using that to make further poor decisions.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_costs

    Gerhard Adam
    The concept of sunk costs is a widely accepted and taught term in 1st year economics courses that is a sound way to evaluate how to approach making future decisions.
    Oh I understand the concept, but if someone wants to rationalize how a 500% variation in a projected cost can be magically corrected by the same people that created the problem in the first place then I don't buy it.
    Sunk costs *is not* an excuse to justify prior poor decisions or to cover for them.
    It is when you do nothing to replace the people responsible for the initial fiasco. 
    But if the new spending requests by NASA are realistic and verifiable...
    Not a problem if this is done, but reference to "sunk costs" is also irrelevant if you have changed the project and have confidence in new leadership.

    Sunk costs are not relevant by themselves and are not a criteria that can be applied in isolation.  However, one has to look at sunk costs when it comes to assessing what the likelihood is that a different result is suddenly being predicted by the same people that were wrong to begin with.  Then your sunk cost because a much more reliable indicator in assessing how much credence to give the people making the claim.  After all, one definition of stupidity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

    In the original example, if someone accepts a 500% cost variance (remember they've invested $1.5 million in a $400K house) and suddenly believes the same people that only an additional $50K would complete the project .... sorry, but that's fantasyland.  More importantly it is completely wrong to suggest that one is getting a $400K house for only $50K.  Like it or not, the house is now $1.5 million and completing the project is only going to be relevant in assessing the scope of the loss, because it will only result in a loss (even when it is completed successfully).  However, if that $50K estimate is wrong, then your loss will simply keep increasing.  Using that logic, you'll continue to throw "good money after bad" because "sunk costs" will perpetually be used as a justification to avoid ending up with $0 value.  This is the path to failure.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    And they are buying into a myth of sunk expertise also.   Some are buying into the claim this is "70% done", but that is the 70% that was easy to do, even ten years ago.    There are substantial engineering challenges in this and the confidence level was low in the beginning, counting on the fact that technology would just get better when it needed to - but that hasn't matched the pace of their expectations so delays are more like buying time than mistakes that can crop up in any big project and just have to be fixed.

    Going back to your original article and then reading all the follow-up comments you have provided, it seems to me that you think there was some golden time in the past when NASA got time and cost estimates right - and that simply isn't true. It's not true for military projects, it's not true for civilian projects, it's just not true anywhere. Correct estimates, especially of Big Engineering projects, are virtually never correct anywhere in the world. Take a look at this report to find that incorrect estimates are to be expected - they are the nature of the beast.

    http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/nexgen/Nexgen_Downloads/Butts_NASA%2...

    You may think your argument is with NASA, but instead it seems to be with human nature - and good luck winning that argument.

    When I worked in Software Engineering/IT, I used to comment to managers that you could have your project quick, cheap, or good - pick any two. Most refused to make a choice and said they wanted all three - so we told them what they wanted to hear. And I can see why in a way - true cost and time estimates are so overwhelming that those not in the business have no concept of what it takes to get a project done. When I told a manager that studies have repeatedly shown that a software project from start to finish, from concept to design to coding to testing to documentation will take 2 to 4 man-hours per line of code, and that their project was going to require a million lines of code - the answer was always "our guys are better than that." And inevitably, they weren't - but by estimating they were, the project got approved.

    Although I am long out of the business, I am aware of projects, and in a commercial environment yet, that are going to cost no less than 8x the initial estimate. And these guys have to make a profit. And this is not cutting edge stuff, it's data processing.

    Again, I return to my initial argument - will any future expenditures - best estimate, no fudging, be worth any future benefits. What it's cost us so far is not germane - and to expect NASA to be any different from anyone else is just slamming your head against the wall - you aren't going to change human nature, but you can plan for it.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think you're missing the point.  This isn't just about budget, but budget with unknown and potentially unavailable technologies.  So any project that is dependent on unknown technology and the ability to achieve it, is subject to different criteria in terms of evaluating it.

    If you estimated an IT project based on the assumption of a new software release or new technology that never materialized, then you should be held to a different standard than if you're simply estimating a project based on man hours.
    Mundus vult decipi
    That's the point exactly - sometimes we don't know what we don't know. In any large engineering project that is cutting edge, or even one that isn't, but is just big, unknowns are bound to crop up that throw off original estimates. The original estimators have usually done their best, but it seems we often like to hold them to account for not being omniscient. Lawyers are very good at this, as are critics of programs gone wrong.

    It's awfully easy to look back and question why we did something - it's much more difficult to look forward and say what we should do. Those who are good at the latter are often fabulously successful, but very rare. And any close examination of their record will often reveal a string of wrong predictions among the right ones. It is said that the best indicator of the ability to predict the future is an ability to make money from it - how many of those people can you name?

    Are the challenges of the JWT too great to overcome? I don't know, and maybe we don't want to accept NASA's word for it, but to ask for a program with no risk or even only defined risks is to ask for the impossible. Evaluate what we now know fairly and match it up with our priorities and we should have an answer on whether or not to proceed. Just keep in mind the only way to achieve no failures is to do nothing. If the culture is to severely punish those who made logical, but wrong, predictions about the future, is it any wonder we have a highly risk adverse culture that spends a fortune trying to cover every black swan and achieves little at great expense?

    Hank
    The original estimators have usually done their best
    If this were a one-off, I would agree, and in most science projects, I agree.   But NASA has shown this to be a chronic problem.    I mean, really, why was it going to take 15 years to go back to the Moon when it only took 9 years to go the first time, including creating all of the technology to do so from scratch?

    NASA has become legendary for overestimating benefit and underestimating cost and time to completion and as a result they have become a job works program rather than a science one.  Again, their own confidence level of JWST working at all was only 50% - so it may really be a lot lower than that.   NASA has the largest budget of any organization in science and the least accountability.   Congress is griping at the NSF for $70 million in wasted money.    If they didn't gripe at NASA there would be something really wrong.
    Hank - I couldn't agree more! I'm writing this a week from the date that we hit the debt limit ceiling, because no one is willing to give up his / her pet project or pay a dime more in taxes.

    For each big item, we should ask our elected leaders:
    1. What is the possible use compared to cost?
    2. What is the benefit to mankind or the planet?
    3. What is the chance that it will actually work?

    For JWST the answers are not favorable:
    1. Small - just think how many projects we could fund that might actually solve a problem most people care about.
    2. Nothing compared to a project to reduce the incidence of malaria or that would advance photovoltaics or LED lighting - that could help alleviate coming energy crunch and global warming.
    3. NASA says 50% - like the person who had worked in software engineering, I believe that's what NASA's bosses (ultimately us) want to hear. Given that there is no way to service the JWST if it fails (no Shuttle and it's located too far away anyway) and the problems the program has had already, it's likely much less than 50%.

    The SSC is a good analogy - we didn't build it and that did not create a problem.
    - Well OK canceling the SSC or the JWST did or will affect the job prospects of some less creative physicists who couldn't imagine a compelling small science project.

    I say this as an engineer by profession and an environmentalist by advocacy.

    Why waste $1.6 billion on a replacement for Hubble when the Pentagon "needs" $649,000,000,000 to keep the United States safe from the evil Taliban Empire. That's a lot of money - 2, maybe 3 dollars per star in the Milky Way galaxy - stars the James Webb telescope will never see.

    Eisenhower warned us. But we didn't listen.

    Just for comparison, NASA will be lucky to get a FY12 budget of $18.5B. To provide air-conditioning to tents in Afghanistan and Iraq it costs DoD $20B. I wonder what most people would think is more important.

    Gerhard Adam
    Depends on when you ask them.  Like it or not, we're in Afghanistan and Iraq, because that's what the majority of people in the U.S. wanted.  It was going to be the "O.K. Corral" against Bin Laden.  It's only after discovering that it didn't turn out that way, that people are having second thoughts.  However, even today you still hear the lame argument that these soldiers are fighting to protect "our freedoms". 

    Until people get their heads out of the sand and begin to make better decisions, no amount of rhetoric regarding "supporting the troops" will carry much meaning.
    Mundus vult decipi
    No, no, no the true cost of of "protection" is closer to $1.4 trillion when you add in the budgets for CIA, DHS, NSA, TSA and a host of other 3 letter acronyms. But what's a few hunderd billion among friends.

    Ike originally phrased his famous warning to include the military, industrial AND legislative complex - but alas dropped the latter - the most insidious "complex" of all.

    Mr. Campbell,
    I agree with your basic argument that Big Science crowds out small science, and Big Science means big budgets, political lobbying and all the problems of big bureaucracies everywhere--cost overruns, delays, self-serving lack of accountability, and often a shoddy product at the end. The DOE's SSC debacle has been replicated several times at NASA, and the NSF is doing much the same thing with the LIGO project, sucking up scarce research dollars from other worthy efforts, and its original basic mission to support small scale and individual research.

    All of that being said, it would be tragic to cancel JWST at this point. It is a fact that the US has lost the mantle of scientific leadership to Europe in particle physics after the SSC cancellation. To repeat this mistake in astronomy and astrophysics would be devastating, especially with both the remaining research program at NASA decimated and the manned program at a seeming dead end with the last Shuttle flight.

    The "mantle of leadership" is not just a phrase or a slogan. I have spent parts of the last two years at CERN, and in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Italy. Their bureaucracies and overall system of funding science is certainly not without problems, but the pure simple enthusiasm of younger people is much higher than in the US, and many more of them are pursuing scientific careers. This will pay off for Europe in dozens of ways over the next few decades, just as the excitement among American kids about all this scientific and the space age and the "brain drain" in the 50's and 60's paid off for us in computers, the internet, and many other innovations and products for the last four decades. If we don't replenish that well of enthusiasm for the next generation, the United States will surely pay a heavy price in both economic vitality and national security.

    Let us look much more critically at these large projects before they start, and get the science and engineering right before billions are poured into a hole in Texas. By all means let us put much more of our resources into creative new ideas at a smaller scale rather than in agency bureaucracies, and encourage a ground up approach that gets more young people involved and enthusiastic. But recognizing that some science will have to be done at a larger scale, once having made a commitment to projects like JWST, let's redouble our efforts to make sure they work (the refitting of the HST is a good case in point), rather than pouring money down a hole and then burying it, without anything at all to show for the time, effort and money.

    Just a simple point, from a guy who once applied to the NASA *Missions Specialist* Program... a total outsider looking in.
    The debate here seems more an ideological, political debate, rather than a debate of Pros vs Cons of Webb.
    To me, the problem with NASA is that it doesn't know what it is. Over the past 30 years, it has become more a Corporate entity, rather than what it was in its heyday. It's lost its focus, because it is run more like a business, than a division of the Government, responsible for everything future-oriented above the skyscrapers... whether in defense of the Nation, or to further Research.
    There was a time when NASA stood for American excellence. But that attitude, in general, in the Country has dissipated. People like to speak of American Exceptionalism, but in reality, those that can contribute to keeping America at the forefront of Science & Engineering, especially the Large Multi-National Corporations that were born here, & often created because of contracts from the Government, care only about the bottom-line... not America.
    These same types are now throughout the Government, whether as Representatives, or Administrators.
    Everything has become bottom-line, and with it, NASA has become tentative & risk-averse. It's lost its MOJO.
    And with all the Corporate Bureaucrats multiplying, people who think everything should be Private, NASA, like every Government entity that gave rise to so much Private industry, will be starved into oblivion.

    Travel around the world, as I do, you see everywhere people thinking America has shot its load, & is on decline. NASA, Webb, etc, are all symptoms of a Nation that's lost focus... everything has become the bottom-line.

    Zero defects for the James Webb Space Telescope is not a luxury, it a necessity. If something needs a repair, you cannot send by bus a technician to fix it. Some high tech projects cost are hard to forecast. the JW Telescope fits in that category.

    Some of the reasoning applied to the cancellation of the JW telescope can be applied to any project except for wasting 1 Trillion $$$$$$$$$$$ in an economic stimulus program that did not work. If politicians seek a monetary black hole, they will finance the new health care bill or place the burden of medicare on those who cannot afford to pay for it. USA politicians are the best that money can buy. The will save money on projects like JW telescope and spend it on failing economic stimulus and by neglecting to find financing for 4 trillion $ for needed infrastructure

    Gerhard Adam
    So your argument, is that it's OK to waste $1.5 billion dollars because it's so much less than all the other "projects" that have been wasted?

    There's no question that the U.S. politicians, and business leaders are living in an economic fantasy land, but that doesn't justify supporting more projects governed by that same mentality.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Right to kill the Webb space telescope?

    Only if you are a dedicated bean counter with no courage and no vision.
    But then again, that's exactly what the current administration seems intent on doing... ripping America down and recreating a depression-era image of backward despair and pointless, wandering malaise.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but that's precisely what's wrong with the political bias in this country.  People are foolish enough to believe that this is something that has only recently happened.  This is the trajectory that the politicians and voters have set this country on, and it's been decades and decades ... not just this administration.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Curious. Every time i try to point that very thing out, I either get wholly ignored or fallen upon by partisan gladiators from both sides.
    Nonetheless, the current administration is no friend of discovery. I can't help that he is also this or that.... or not this or that.

    Thanks for the reply.

    Gerhard Adam
    ...I either get wholly ignored or fallen upon by partisan gladiators from both sides.
    Not this time.  I'm personally tired of "red" and "blue" viewpoints being expressed, while each side does their level best to continue running the country into the ground.  In  my view, the current political machinery is simply geared towards ensuring its own survival, regardless of the consequences to the country.  The more extreme, and the dumber the perspective, the greater air time it receives and the more people buy into it.


    Mundus vult decipi
    "the same way they claim we lost 'leadership' in physics by canceling the Superconducting SuperCollider, despite the fact that there was no indication it would even be completed today - or how it would have worked. It was a goal, not a specification for engineers." Are you saying that the semi-socialist Europeans, who did build and have been successfully exercising the Large Hadron Collider, getting great science out of it -- are you saying that Americans can't keep up? I think you should be saying we aren't willing to keep up, don't you?

    btw, funding for the largest American particle accelerator, the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago, will end at the end of fiscal year 2011. It runs at about 1/3 the energy level of its bigger European cousin. The Superconducting SuperCollider would have run at about four times the energy of the machine in Switzerland. And it was under construction when it was cancelled.

    Leadership in physics has been ceded to others. Reality, not a worry.

    Hank
    I am not sure you understand physics leadership - it is a lot more than just escalating energy.    The SSC was not only, on paper, superior to the LHC but also the ILC that hasn't even been built.  When it was canceled it was as far away from completion as when it started, and that is why I say I am not sure it would have been done now.   The LHC already had the tunnels and a MUCH MORE modest goal than the SSC.  Comparing them is silly, unless you just don't know anything about HEP.
    Puzzled, y'all ... are you saying that we should have built the same collider as Europe? You know that LHC's limitations will end its scientifically viable life someday reasonably soon, just like the circle at Fermilab. And I do agree that SSC may not have been completed by now (the LHC only recently began "doing science" itself, and as you say, it was less ambitious and further ahead than the SSC when building on the SSC had begun). Not to mention that the American people, through our elected officials in Washington, are pretty schizophrenic when it comes to consistently funding Big Science. It's one of the myriad reasons why some (not all) of NASA's projects end up delayed, over budget and with reduced scope when delivered. It's one of the reasons Webb will be even more expensive should it be stopped and eventually refunded.

    Also remember that the politicians in Texas, bless their hearts, beat out the politicians in Illinois for the venue to build the SSC. The existing infrastructure at Fermilab might have been the supplier of particles for the Big Ring, our version of the tunnels that were already built (and yes, I know that leads the discussion in another direction, but y'all started it). That's leadership for you. Oh, wait, we were talking about scientific leadership ...

    Back on that subject, and back to what should have been built ... again, American physicists have to wrangle time at CERN. I suspect, but don't know, that they are given slightly lower priority than European scientists. The technicians, everyday scientists, analysts and engineers and office staff there by and large speak languages like French, and not many have a Texas drawl. Partnerships and personal relationships with the University of Geneva are, I suspect, easier to come by and maintain than with the University of Michigan -- and the travel overhead is considerably less, an important factor in a publicly funded American university right now. No, I mean what I said -- American leadership in high energy physics has been ceded to the Europeans in no small way.

    Hank
    But what does that mean?   If American military leadership lessens, for example, but we are decades ahead of the rest of the world, slowing the pace will be claimed by proponents of military budgets as cuts.  Is it really a cut to not have ballooning budgets that never get controlled?

    The LHC physicists get some data and write a paper - that's it, the rest of the world still gets the data and it is a collaboration and there are 1,000 names on it just like at the Tevatron, and those names are from all over the world.  We have a writer here who works at Tevatron and at the LHC and also has a regular physics job.   In that context, is science in America really hampered because Europe foots the bigger bill for the LHC?  I don't see how.   It is esoteric to see people claim America loses 'leadership' if we don't foot the biggest bill for everything.  It's military jingo-ism, except in science.   Is anyone claiming we were hampered in astronomy because wacko environmentalists drove telescopes completely out of the US?  Is Chile now the world leader in astronomy because newer telescopes are there?  Ummm, no.

    Nor do I see how science will really be hampered if we can only see 800 million years after the Big Bang instead of 400 million - at any cost.  People who think all science must be funded and that budgets must increase every year, it sounds to most of us a lot like kooks who insist corporations are evil because they are corporations.  

    Instead, we could be using a science budget to make achievable projects happen - but some kooky people insist there are no other projects, thousands of astronomers  can only think of one thing to do; take better pictures than Hubble provides.  Obama canceled Constellation too, he may be the biggest enemy science has had in the last hundred years, but he is trying to get re-elected and that means making tough choices, including things his biggest supporters - academics - may not like.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think the primary issue as what you're presenting.  What you're saying may be reasonable fiscal sense, but the problem is a much deeper psychological one when it comes to the relationship of the U.S. to the rest of the world.

    The U.S. has long held itself up as the "leader of the free world" and as the richest nation on Earth.  As with so many other things, we have set ourselves up to be the "top dog" in this situation.  Therefore, when we appear to have lost our edge and seem to be incapable of managing projects, handling costs (i.e. including uncontrolled debt), it begins to chip away at our influence and power.  At present, I suspect that the only real influence the U.S. has in the world is to level military threats and even that is beginning to pale when it has become clear that we're simply stretched too thin.

    We are rapidly becoming a "has-been" in terms of perception, which will have effects in how we deal with other nations.  Certainly you can say that we produce more science, or that we still have the best technology, or that we have the best higher education ... but to many the question is ... for how much longer?  We seem to be doing our best at dismantling everything we've ever stood for, and that (in my view) represents the core of the problem. 

    It isn't whether the JWT is over-budget, or whether we cancel this or any other program.  Instead the issue is whether we are ascending or spiraling into a self-destructive descent.
    In that context, is science in America really hampered because Europe foots the bigger bill for the LHC?  I don't see how.
    I would agree that science itself isn't hampered, but the U.S. ability to exercise influence certainly is.  If the U.S. isn't careful, it is rapidly rendering itself irrelevant.  To many, the only value the U.S. has is a large economy that many want to tap into.  However, I also see more and more countries trying to distance themselves so that when the bubble bursts, they won't be spattered.  In short ... the U.S. is rapidly becoming the Charlie Sheen of the world.
    Mundus vult decipi
    And wait -- " wacko environmentalists drove telescopes completely out of the US?" Are you oversimplifying that argument, too? True, endangered species live in some of the remote areas we'd love to put new telescopes. So why do we need to put up new telescopes? -- better optics, more up-to-date facilities, better spots to and -- here's a good one -- less light pollution.

    Now why would we need to move telescopes because of light pollution? Might it be because wacko environmentalists are doing a crummy job convincing people outside of Tucson, Arizona that they might want to put hoods over their lights so everyone can see the stars, not just the astronomers? No, apparently we need to kill the last of the mountaintop squirrels because the local Exxon station absolutely must shine brightly in the night. Because TVA loves to supply mercury acorn lights to just about anyone who asks so their farms will be lit up like Christmas all night. Because the contractor for the new subdivision in Los Angeles County wants to advertise the safety of its streets, but he doesn't want to, and doesn't need to, spend the extra bucks up front to install Dark Skies http://www.darksky.org/ and Illuminating Engineering Society http://www.iesna.org/ -recommended lighting that, by the way, will save the homeowner and local government money on the electricity they pay to run them, probably result in healthier vegetation around the lights, and -- my favorite part -- let people (including you and me) see the stars.

    That right there is a very Science 2.0 ideal. Let people see the stars. They're out there. They're cool and beautiful. There are a lot of them. Seeing them reawakens wonder and excitement about the natural world. They remind people that there are things they don't know, but maybe would like to.

    A conversation with a self-professed tea partier on a plane recently -- not making this up -- she was under the impression that all the points in the night sky were simple stars, and there weren't that many of them. Why don't we know everything there is to know about them already? If scientists haven't gotten that far, then maybe we should stop funding them and focus on things like creating jobs and advancing medicine so health care will be cheaper. Since she obviously wouldn't support the traffic to and from the telescope on Mount Graham, she must be a wacko environmentalist. That or a native American. -- I believe the squirrels are safe for the time being.

    Another btw -- are there any ways we scientists might be able to figure out ways that we and the unusual biome on that sky island might coexist, rather than continue killing squirrels, of which there ain't any more? Or are physicists, cattle and loggers more important than biologists and reasonably rare ecosystems? Add to this the risk from potential global warming -- maybe the squirrels aren't so safe after all.

    Hank
    And wait -- " wacko environmentalists drove telescopes completely out of the US?" Are you oversimplifying that argument, too? True, endangered species live in some of the remote areas we'd love to put new telescopes. So why do we need to put up new telescopes? -- better optics, more up-to-date facilities, better spots to and -- here's a good one -- less light pollution.
    It's not oversimplifying, we can't build telescopes in the US now.   So 'leadership' is in Chile if building new stuff is all that matters.    Light pollution is the best reason to have new telescopes but there is no reason not to add more houses if there are no new telescopes - astronomers should be considered friends of the environment in that regard but fringe progressives act like science is the enemy.  Why fight in court for a decade?   Just move to Chile.   Or any place where they want smart people and an influx of money in their community.

    Again, some people are contending dumping money into equipment is the sole aspect of science 'leadership' so is Chile the world leader in astronomy?   I don't think so.   But it was always flawed logic by people who want every project to be funded and don't know where money actually comes from.   My military analogy was apt for that same reason - it is a paranoid fear of ghostly future problems designed to invoke fear in the populace.
    You do have telescopes being build on the big island of Hawaii, or is that not part of the US? Mauna Kea is host to a large number of telescopes. Recall that Chile has a big advantage that any US observatory does not it can cover the southern sky. The northern sky is well covered by existing observatories.

    I am a bit puzzled over this. In another comment it appears that you know that the ILC is the "every other generation" fermion collider that provides a cleaner signal than the Large _Hadron_ collider and is set to extend its result as soon as the parameters of the new physics is constrained well enough. So it is as you say "silly" to compare ILC with the others.

    In a longer, referenced, commentary in hold I provided the description of LHC as having a much less modest technological goal than SSC, forced by the constraint of reusing infrastructure. IIRC the SSC magnets were aimed to be stronger than the LHC, but the engineering that went into the LHC magnets (cooler, smaller, more curvature) was riskier.

    Gerhard Adam
    ...are you saying that Americans can't keep up? I think you should be saying we aren't willing to keep up, don't you?
    What's the difference?  That's like the guy that fantasizes about going to the gym to finally get into shape and lose weight, while he's opening another bag of potato chips in front of the TV.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Man, I wish that was funny! (Thanks for the post! rg)

    Air conditioning for the military costs more than NASA's entire budget. No one wants to cut funding to our troops, but we're currently spending $432,000 per active duty soldier. And they don't even get complimentary chocolates on their pillows. Nor protective plating for their Humvee's - a number of years ago.

    If the only way to get projects funded is by attaching some destructive capability to them, then perhaps NASA needs to change with the times. Perhaps NASA should have developed a gamma ray beam capable of incinerating France and simply attached the James Webb Telescope to it... for.... "targeting purposes." Then we could see into the cosmic dark age and at the same time burn a hole through the earth . Perhaps NASA needs to develop a space shuttle with a Klingon style cloaking device (come to think of it, I think the Pentagon is already funding a project of that nature). NASA has to start thinking like a 13 year old - which is, when you think about it, the collective mentality of our members of Congress.

    Gerhard Adam
    ...and what is it exactly that you have against 13 year olds?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Cool, American's eventually losing their leadership in the world's science. How wonderful it is. Now they are poor and can not afford these big projects. At least europe has LHC and Herscel, America only has Tevatron and Hubble, which are almost retiring stuffs. If the James Webb stops immediately, then the europeans will be very happy to hire those unemployed scientists to fulfil their dreams in the other side of the world. The chinese will be also happy to pay for these projects if americans don't want to do that, the scientists can work in China without passing TOEFL and earn more money. Who cares, the science will not stop developing if these things are not built in US, it only proves that US's ebbing!

    Hank
    No, it proves that the rest of the world is finally doing their share.  About time.
    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps it would've been better if this had been achieved by intent, rather than simply that we've become too bloated to manage some of this.  I'm certainly not advocating that the U.S. should be funding everything, nor even that it necessarily needs to be a "leader" in every event taking place in the world.  However, I just can't help but feel that this sounds more like rationalizing our failures, rather than a directed outcome based on strength.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Of course when the paper's are published, the Americans are welcomed to read them.

    You sound like a sour and failed scientist/engineer who didn't get a job, and was forced to leave the US. Inferiority complex? Take some time, you'll get over it.

    And that is exactly the American's don't want! Like what they did to the Russians

    There seems to be confusion between science and project management. The good ol' days of NASA was not Apollo, it was Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. In other words, they iteratively designed and built more complex machinery because they knew it was better to just tackle a few hard features at a time. Sounds to me like the new scope had too many new features to do all at once. Maybe it should have been canned a long time ago (had they tried to prove they could handle the hard parts and failed) so as not to waste a lot of money and allow someone else to try again. They put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. Again, this has nothing to do with science and whether a bigger scope should be built. My gut feeling is we should build it, but we should also have better engineering management. Of course, this is a common problem with building fancy gadgets. See F-35.

    I'd like to see NASA do big and bold. But I'd also like to see them do it with humility. Big scope, land on an asteroid, go to mars, whatever. But just do a better job of understanding the difference between what the scientists say is easy to do because the theory is simple and what the engineers say is simple because they've actually done it.

    Hank
    Right, this is the problem with having a "let's say anything to get funding" mentality, knowing the confidence level is 50% anyway, the budget is underestimated, the timeframe too aggressive, since the engineering is not known, and assuming once the money is spent it will be too expensive to cancel it.

    Someone at Wired - I forget who, it doesn't matter - fell right into it, arguing too much had been spent to stop or it would all have been wasted.  Investors call that 'catching a falling knife' but to dopey bloggers, it makes perfect sense.
    This I agree with. The argument is called "sunk cost" I believe, and using it will make financial analysts laugh you out of the bank. As it should, a project must bear its own _every day_ of the week, if its ROI is too low it should be killed.

    Cutting to the bare bones only requires removal of the Global Warming Branch along with that hack Hansen. The longer NASA goes down that road the less credibility it will have.

    Mr. Campbell, you're worse than Bill O'Reilly. How long before you start calling people 'pin heads'? I'm not talking about your science, I'm talking about your journalism. Stir up the bee's nest. So cheap. So transparent. You should be ashamed.

    Good bye.

    Hank
    If there is any journalism on this site, we want it caught and shot now.   Science 2.0 was created precisely because the public doesn't trust journalists and scientists think journalists are stupid.  For the most part, they are right.   

    What were you seeking?  Some pithy ode to the awesomeness of science?   We have 50,000 of those.    If instead you think any bloated mechanism operated by pygmies needs to have money showered on it if it uses 'science' in the name, well, yes, then a science site is the wrong place for you.  The New York Times is losing money hand over fist so I am sure one more reader for 8th grade pap is welcome.
    "Pygmies" instead of "pin heads"? How bigoted.

    Hank
    I'm not sure how you get bigotry out of pin heads or pygmies or unicorns unless you see it in lots of places, even where it does not exist.    Yet I concur people attribute all kinds of motivations to others if it will help rationalize dislike for and demonize The Other, especially if they disagree about a pet project.
    I get bigotry out of your use of a term that, while no longer is used in etnographics, stands for "racial belonging". It wasn't my use of "The Other", it was simply a reflection on your bigotry (in *your* use of The Other, btw).

    Hank
    In other words, you want to find bigotry as a way to assume faux superiority, just like I said.  There is virtually no word that could be used that someone cant ascribe bigotry to, using your sweeping and completely subjective definition.   Had I said "Swedes" you could claim I am bigoted against the sons of people named Lars.   It is still nothing except an attempt to hijack the discourse to make irrelevant sociological claims that have nothing at all to do with the JWST.
    This is more a political issue than an economical.

    US will not go into bankruptcy funding JWST or even more space technology. And presumably space technology has greater ROI (NASA estimates) than some of the more shielded pork fabrication such as military technology. Unfortunately space can never compete with the military sector (say) in, ironically, systematic slight oversight that generates the pork, nor in volume.

    Yes, it makes sense that smaller, flexible projects generate more, faster, cheaper in industry. However in science large observatories are where the large progress is. Because in science synergy of research multiplies value above the mere linear achievement of project management.

    Science needs both kinds of projects to get there fastest. (I.e cheapest and, coincidentally, with greatest social return too.)

    It is also wrong to suggest that international science immediately takes up the slack after loosing the projected observatory that can a) look into the very early universe b) characterize exoplanets. JWST (and the already ongoing SOPHIA) observatories supplant precisely a large set of "smaller, flexible" projects and with it gone there is nothing much outside of X ray observatories.

    And as Hubble the JWST was set to be used by the international community. This community has included the JWST in its overall plans for a long time now.

    A nitpick:

    LHC wasn't "much more reasonable" in engineering. LHC uses new superconductor magnets that are much more innovative than the conservative magnets SSC was set to use:

    "Each weighs 35 tons, and the entire lot has to be cooled down to 1.9ºK, the temperature of superfluid liquid helium (the SSC, in contrast, used simple liquid helium at 4.5 K). It’s the immense magnetic fields created by these giant magnets at the LHC that keeps the protons confined to the beam pipe.

    There was another innovation. The LEP tunnel was only 3.8-metres wide. The LHC could not afford to use two sets of cryogenically-cooled superconducting magnets — they wouldn’t fit inside the tunnel. So, the magnets for LHC were designed such that the same cryostat could house two magnets, one for the clockwise beam and the other for the counter-clockwise beam. It was a tight fit, but it worked."

    It was the SSC that was much more reasonable in *innovative* engineering. And that cost it in infrastructure, *civil* engineering.

    The SSC and JWST are great ideas put forward by great men. They should be funded and funded in excess if that's what it takes to get them done. Money is wasted on so many useless things and it really has only a rough correlation with human effort and labor. I agree we need more J. Webbs and not bureaucrats looking for money and then sitting on it, but that needs decisive investigative work, not killing projects which I have no doubt will advance our civilization in ways we cannot imagine. There are great people, maybe underlings?, in NASA. We need investigators and a system that bring those people out and reimburse them for the great work and ideas they can do for man and womankind. If they need a billion for a great idea, then give it to them. If some bureaucrat wants a million so he can look good for his bosses and get a promotion, demote him or fire him. We need a culture which rewards the best...they are there. Science gifts to our culture are priceless, and you cannot put a figure on them. Look at all the people out of work. Money is just paper. We need hard workers, not bureaucrats, to get things done productively. Pointing fingers and killing important projects doesn't work though.

    Hank
    I agree but as long as these projects are government funded it can't happen the way you envision.  There are too many quotas, restrictions and piles of paperwork.     Science, in a perfect world, would be about excellence and not hiring the right genders, sexualities and minorities, but government is about fairness, which is the antithesis of excellence.

    Why scientists insist government is the only way to do science is a mystery and, as I said before, a hoax perpetuated by the government.     Lots of basic research gets done by the private sector - drug discovery by companies disproves the notion that only the government will fund basic science, none of that is done in academia - but proponents of government-controlled science insist that is an anomaly.
    It cannot happen with the current zeitgeist, but I do not think it could happen and in a way that does not require much . We think (and corporations think too) that everything can only be solved with money, and now our system is so rigged to that schema, that its difficult to survive without going along with it. There is only one solution, and that is to change the zeithgeist. This happens during wars (unfortunately) when people are afraid and anxious about the future. It also happens when they are inspired by some event, like the Apollo moon landing. Unless an idea is crazy, there is absolutely no hope for it. Unless we forge ahead bravely into the unknown (and screw the costs), there is likewise no hope for the human race. If JWST finds life on another world, or by examining such uncharted extremes of time and space perhaps to find new ways forces are linked, I think that it will inspire a whole new generation to non-monetary endeavors, and they will not be controllable by the rich or grant-lenders or any other bureaucrat. But we need to forge ahead and spend those billions now on something useful so attitudes can change, or the next few hundred years will be a new Middle Ages based upon low-level thinking about money as God, and the rich our new feudal lords. It would be great if our young people could be inspired to something more than memorizing rock songs and dreaming about being rich and famous. If we found life on another world, they would be, and a whole generation of scientists, thinkers, and innovators would put humanity on the fast track to the better future.

    Hank
    JWST is not designed to find life on other worlds, it is designed to find light, just farther away (back in time, so to speak) than the Hubble, by a few hundred million years.  It is incremental - evolutionary, not revolutionary.   

    I have no problem spending money - the error we make, when it comes to telescopes or even manned space exploration, is saying it has to be a science benefit.   Some things can and should be done for the reasons you outline, to broaden the expanse of human exploration, but that does not make it a reasonable science justification.  At some point there is going to be a backlash - no one in science, and I mean no one, hypes like astronomy does.  Every month there is some 'origin of life' related story.  If biology or physics did it, biologists and physicists would turn on the culprits but astronomers seem to defend most all of the glory-hounding.   And circling the wagons around this bloatware project is a sure sign scientists and NASA administrators can't be trusted to know what is a sound investment and what isn't. 
    There are alot better things to spend money on rather than looking at the stars. Fund a science program for kids, let private companies bid and complete the project. If NASA was a contractor building my house, I would have fired it, and potentially be suing it.

    Hank
    I think I get your point, though I don't agree with the conclusion about looking at stars - too much of what we do seeks science legitimacy and, as Freeman Dyson put it (I will paraphrase him), by all means let man's curiosity take us into space - but stop calling it science.    It still has value.

    Astronomy, as I have noted, is a giant hype machine, the biggest in science, and unless someone says something really crazy, no one ever calls anyone out on it.   That should be dialed down a bit and projects should be more realistic.    We cannot let a government-funded group be free from the government restrictions in place so the solution is indeed to get projects with risk outside the government.
    I acknowledge the cost of the program is small compare to other US government spending, so it will be a shame that the project get cancelled, and I think Webb can indeed bring good science. However, as some poster suggested, NASA requires considerable internal reforms.

    As a personal opinion, I would not have a problem using Webb as a bargaining chip to force changes in politics and culture within NASA. If that is what the congress is thinking, I would give them support. Yes, even Webb is not really that expensive (relatively speaking), but money wasted is still money wasted. NASA is an important public image to the US. An efficient NASA can be good role model for other US government agencies.

    It will be a shame that good science (and I think Webb can indeed bring good science) is being damaged by bad science politics. However, if brinkmanship and creditable threats are needed to reduce bad politics for long-term good of science, then the brinkmanship and threats should be employed.