In early 2010, when President Obama canceled the Constellation program, America's return to the moon, because it was 'too expensive', the assumption was that he was just playing politics. The Constellation project had the name of President George W. Bush on it while a new project using much of the same technology in development, could have Obama's. Because if it wasn't just politics and was really about lack of a road map for completion and cost, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) would have been under the knife. When it was approved in the late 1990s, it was going to cost $1 billion and 9 years to complete. After 9 years, they were not even close to working on the hard parts. Worry had set in among the rest of space science. Budgets are finite and each year that JWST hemorrhages another cost overrun, the rest of space science bleeds and smaller projects don't get funded.
In late 2010, when I wrote about more delays for JWST, the new completion date was going to be 2014 and the cost was $5 billion and Democrats were going after it the same way they had the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) physics experiment in the early 1990s, and Constellation. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., demanded an outside panel to look into cost controls. She noted that the project managers had a 'joint confidence level' of only 50% but had spun it to be much more promising to get funding. Basically, they were trying to create the aerospace equivalent of "too big to fail".
They got more money after assuring the panel it would be ready in late 2015.
Artistic credit: Canadian Space Agency
In 2015, it is another 3 years and $3 billion more away from completion, with the latest estimate being October of 2018. It's still only about 75 percent complete 7 years after missing its original completion date and that has been the easiest 75 percent, a lot of testing system components and creating review processes - they note that the Spacecraft Simulator handbook, Rev B was delivered a month ahead of schedule, for example. That's why I actually didn't disagree with Democrats who wanted to cancel the JWST any more than I disagreed about them canceling the SSC, despite my love of science.
Sometimes good things happen when things that don't work get canceled.
After the United States stopped listening to bizarre arguments about "leadership" in particle physics and canceled the SSC we had no idea how to build, Europe set about making the achievable Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Next up will perhaps be an International Linear Collider (ILC) with greater luminosity, and proponents of the SSC say it would have covered that luminosity also, but that is simply belief in government-funded magic. 20 years later the SSC probably would not be completed, we still have no idea how to do it, and experimental physics would have been paralyzed waiting. No Higgs Boson discovery, just Congressional hearings every few years.
Likewise, canceling the JWST would have led to a Hubble successor that was more achievable. The Hubble can see light from 800 million years after the Big Bang and the JWST will see light from 200-300 million years afterward and in a much broader frequency. It sounds wonderful, but are we better off having no big interim project in the last 25 years, something we knew could be built on time? This thing is going to be 1,000,000 miles away, four times farther away than the moon. The Hubble is only 375 miles away, that was reached with the Space Shuttle when it needed a fix. Sending a manned mission to fix JWST would take another 10 years of planning and it will only last 10 years in the first place. Instead, if something goes wrong, Big Space in America, the kind beyond sending cute robots to Mars, will be dead, the same way Big Physics is dead because of the SSC.
After launch, it will last 6 years. Maybe up to 10. Given the rate of completion of JWST that means we had to have started working on its successor 7 years ago.
If we had built an interim project rather than an aerospace equivalent of the SSC, that knowledge would have led to an easier completion for JWST. It probably would have meant the JWST was still completed at the same time, but without 20 years of time and money on one thing.
I admire ambition, it got us to the moon, but there is a difference between ambition and hubris.
Some 'black boxes' in a specification containing future tech is okay, but this was 50 percent black box. In 2010, I said what NASA needs more than a James Webb Space Telescope is an actual James Webb - a guy who was mission-oriented, who had little patience for assuming the future would solve a problem they had now and would have instead created something that was achievable. And Webb's NASA launched 75 missions to space, including landing on the Moon.
You can see the progress of JWST on its webcams. Here is hoping that I am not writing this article again in 2018.
- Webb Space Telescope- Why Congress May Be Right To Kill It
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- James Webb Space Telescope, 14 Years Behind Schedule, Gets Mechanical Assembly
- Government Accountability Office Has Awkward Questions For NASA About New James Webb Space Telescope Delays