NASA’s newest space telescope project has stayed alive despite a ballooning price tag that now stands at $8.8 billion. But whether or not the James Webb Space Telescope survives into the future may depend upon how well it can maintain the broad political support that helped past “big science” projects ultimately prove successful.
(NASA engineer Ernie Wright looks on as the first six flight ready James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror segments are prepped to begin final cryogenic testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.CREDIT: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham)
“One hopeful example comes from the Hubble Space Telescope that the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to replace. That telescope required $10 billion over two decades after early cost overruns and spacewalk repairs to fix a defective mirror in orbit, but still maintained strong support from both scientists and the U.S. Congress despite all of its troubles.”
“‘For big science on the scale of megaprojects, the support of scientists is necessary but the historical record argues it is not sufficient,’ said Robert Smith, a historian of science at the University of Alberta in Canada. ‘Big science raises big questions and strong support from outside of the scientific community is needed to sustain a megaproject over a long period.’”
“Not all ‘big science’ projects have been as lucky as Hubble. U.S. physicists once dreamed of building the Superconducting Super Collider, a huge particle accelerator in Texas that would have been bigger than the famed Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. But the SSC project failed to become reality because its support never grew beyond a small community of scientists, Smith pointed out during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver on Feb. 18. Such support proved incapable of keeping SSC alive when the political winds shifted against it — even after $2 billion had already been spent.”
The example of the SSC in this story is a canny observation. It proves that Congress WILL walk away from billions already spent on a large science project if it becomes politically untenable. Even Texas, with its powerful pull on the national political stage, and its Congressional delegation were unable to save the SSC when the plug was pulled in the 80’s.
This issue barely touches on something that I think reveals a potentially fatal flaw in the attitude of the American astronomical community. Last summer, when the funding plug was initially pulled on JWST, the community’s reaction was largely (what it believed to be) righteous indignation, with calls for every astronomer to write their Congressional representatives demanding reinstatement of full funding. Form letters were provided for those not so adept at writing for political audiences. But the belief was just that ‘all we have to do is make enough noise’ and the unending tap of federal funding would be re-opened.
American astronomy is, I think, at a crossroads. Supply in the employment market far exceeds demands in terms of permanent positions, with jobs often eliminated after senior faculty retire. Such is the trend in federal funding, which has been effectively flat for many years. New Ph.D.’s are funneled into a sort of “holding tank” of postdoctoral positions, and those who stay in seem to be far more often on soft money and move from job to job. The real federal funding situation is likely to get increasingly dire with time, as America realizes its decades-long spending binge is dangerously unsustainable. And as I like to say, with limited resources to find science, if Americans are given a choice between, say, astronomy research and curing cancer, they’re going to pick cancer every time.
Our field needs a sea change in its “corporate culture”. It needs to slim down. It needs to graduate fewer new Ph.D.s, reducing pressure on the workforce that leads to exploitation of postdocs. If JWST is indeed canceled, the shock to the system will be palpable, and literally thousands of people will be out of work. We can no longer afford to act like this is the 80’s and we’re still awash in Cold War-related basic R&D spending. I’m afraid that if we don’t reform our field at a very fundamental level, we will soon be surpassed by the Europeans and then the Chinese, and the sun will set on the Golden Age of American Astronomy. (JCB)
(Artist impression of the James Webb telescope. Image credit: NASA)
“The US House Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee has proposed a NASA spending bill that would put NASA’s budget at pre-2008 levels and cancel the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope. Space News reports that the proposal would cut $1.6 billion from NASA’s current budget, which is nearly $2 billion less than President Obama’s 2012 budget request for NASA, giving the space agency just $16.8 billion to work with.”
“This news is not sitting well with scientists and researchers, with some saying this move would “kill US space science for decades.” The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) quickly responded with a statement objecting to the axing of JWST, saying ‘Over the past year, NASA managers and the science community have undertaken a concerted effort to establish a budget and technology plan that allows the launch of JWST by 2018. The proposal by the Congress to terminate the program comes at a time when these efforts are coming to fruition.’ ”
Astronomy news, recent research results, and pretty pictures from the media along with context, commentary, and explanations for folks who dig this sort of thing. Written by a quasi-professional astronomer affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin.