Why completing James Webb can make Sense

On July 6, the House Appropriations Committee released a draft for the 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill. Among other things, this bill “terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management” (as stated in the summary press release). Of course, this is just the draft of a bill. Still, this proposal puts the JWST project seriously under pressure. The panel will meet again this Wednesday (July 13).

The American Astronomical Society quickly released a statement against the cancellation of this project. Also, in an BBC interview, NASA’s Lori Garver started to defend the project. A more comprehensive statement is to be expected after NASA completes internal reviews that were exposed by NASA Watch (also see Nature). Of course, many professional and amateur astronomers are also speaking up to support JWST. However, all the polemic against cutting funding for science — is JWST really worth being saved?

JWST — A Black Hole in NASA’s Budget?

It is difficult to work out how much the price tag for JWST has increased, and the launch date slipped, over the years. Following the report of the 2010 Independent Comprehensive Review Panel, the best present estimate for the life cycle cost is $6.5bn. That was estimated for a launch in late 2015. But a more likely launch date might be 2018 (following NASA Watch and Nature). This would yield higher costs. Back in 2005, before the JWST was confirmed as a project, Sky and Telescope reported a total initial price of $2bn, that had at that time risen to $3bn, assuming a launch in 2012.

The JWST thus has a really terrible track record in keeping launch schedules and cost estimates. The Independent Comprehensive Review Panel points out that “the technical performance on the Project has been commendable and often excellent”. Instead, management is accused of repeatedly failing to provide a realistic budget estimate that also allows for the often risky development of hardware.

It is thus very difficult to gauge when and at what total price the JWST will fly. Even the aforementioned Independent Comprehensive Review Panel from 2010 would be outdated, if the launch date does indeed slip to 2018 and later.

Why JWST is (probably) worth the Money

JWST has the capacity to become the major research tool for essentially all fields of astronomy. Exoplanets, young stars, distant galaxies — all of these objects can be studied well, and sometimes only, with the JWST. There is thus a strong argument to complete this observatory. But completion would likely mean that other missions in the US portfolio cannot be executed.

Based on the Astro2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey for the US, there are actually not many competitors. The only really costly mission with high priority is WFIRST. Next in funding priority are the Explorer missions. Canceling or reducing these is difficult, since that would limit NASA’s ability to react quickly to new science questions, and provides even lesser options to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. The only remaining large mission is LISA; ESA recently decided against major investment in the International X-ray Observatory (IXO), this essentially cancels that mission. But given present budget prospects, I anyway doubt that LISA could be funded. There are other ground-based programs, that also compete for funding. However, even the LSST, which at $0.5bn carries the most hefty price tag of all ground-based project, is comparatively cheap. It should be possible to keep a diverse ground-based problem in place, even if money is tight.

In summary, the competition likely boils down to one single race: JWST vs. WFIRST. In case this is the choice, JWST would probably be the better choice. This observatory supports a much more diverse science community, and it might also be much more appealing to the public. I thus think that JWST should be build. We would loose all options to execute any of the new major space missions. But we would get a very versatile tool for astronomy.

That is, JWST is a good idea as long as building the JWST is a realistic option. If the price tag does again increase by more than $1bn, and the launch date slips to beyond 2020, then we really have to think hard whether all of space astronomy for the next 20 years has to focus on one single mission (that might even suffer from fatal technical accidents). We have to wait for the NASA report to see more clear.

The Way Ahead

Next Wednesday, on July 13, the House Appropriations Committee will continue with discussions of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill. Since Congress and Senat have to come to an agreement on this legislation, it is clear that these discussions will continue for a few months.

The next crucial event is the release of the internal NASA review of the JWST project. If NASA itself decides that JWST is not feasable with reasonable funding, or proposes lunch dates beyond 2020, then continuation of the project might not make much sense.

Still, despite all these problems, we should not forget that costly missions with extreme technical and managerial problems can turn into big successes. As the Independent Comprehensive Review Panel points out, the cost for the Hubble Space Telescope already was $5.8bn in FY2010 dollars after the first service mission (i.e., in 1993). The price tag has steadily increased since. The JWST does thus not set new standards in mission costs.

SOFIA might become another such story. In any case, this observatory reminds us that proposed project cancellation does not need to mean that the project does not get done (e.g., laid out in a Nature article); the president’s budget for 2006 did not allocate any funds, but the plane still got finished. In the case of SOFIA, this was also thanks to the involvement of Germany (20% of the cost), which would have made cancellation an international embarrassment. In this respect, JWST is not doing bad: both ESA (Europe; includes launch on Ariane 5) and Canada are project partners.

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One Response to Why completing James Webb can make Sense

  1. [...] the 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill. As I summarized in a recent article (Why completing James Webb can make Sense), this bill might lead to the cancellation of the James Webb Space Telecope (JWST). The Committee [...]

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