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By Jack Ganssle

The Death of the JWST

Summary: The James Webb Space Telescope faces an uphill battle to survive.

One scene in Fiddler on the Roof has the following amusing dialog:

Perchik: There's a question... A certain question I want to discuss with you. Hodel: Yes? Perchik: It's a political question. Hodel: What is it? Perchik: The question of... marriage. Hodel: Is this a political question? Perchik: Well, yes. Yes, everything's political.

I try hard to be apolitical in these columns, but like Perchik sometimes feel, in these troubled times, that the political intrudes on many areas. Today our elected representatives pretend to scrutinize every dollar, sometimes making what I believe to be dumb decisions.

According to and the US House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science has voted to kill the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Apparently the JWST, like so many other government programs, is far over budget and schedule.

Unlike so many other government programs, a year ago the program passed the technical part of a huge design review, signaling that the design is sound.

The Subcommittee's recommendations are just that, but they carry significant weight, and the thinking is that the JWST will likely be scrubbed.

I think that, despite all of their problems, NASA has been one of the shining beacons of the government. Sure, there's plenty of waste. The ISS is pretty much devoid of any mission, and the Shuttle, now in its grand finale, was compromised by too many interests.

It's easy to pick a government agency apart and expose all of their flaws. But NASA has had some successes that are so brilliant they outshine the problems. There's the Cassini-Huygens mission which, among many other things, found that Titan has liquid hydrocarbon lakes, making it and the Earth the only bodies found with large lakes.

And consider New Horizons: it's expected to reach Pluto on July 14, 2015 (it was sweet of the mission planners to place it there on my birthday - thanks, guys!). Visiting one of the development centers I noted a bumper sticker on an office door: "My other vehicle is on its way to Pluto!"

The Hubble Space Telescope is another example. Not only has Hubble expanded our vision of the universe, it has uncovered major problems in physics (dark matter and energy) that could possibly require a major revamping of our understanding of how the cosmos works. What an exciting time to be a physicist!

I've seen Hubble photos in art galleries. How often does the fruit of a scientific mission inspire artists and the average Joe?

Like the JWST, Hubble was born over-budget and was laughably launched with distorted vision. But those problems are long-forgotten; for two decades it has been returning images of unprecedented quality. It's getting old and will never be serviced again. Long before the JWST's launch it will likely be cold and dead, tumbling till it returns and burns up.

We need this sort of imagery. JWST is a phenomenal mission that will keep us peering deep into the heart of the cosmos.

The Webb Telescope is a risky mission. It'll be 1.5 millions miles out at L2. Technically complex, in an unserviceable orbit, the craft could fail. Spaceflight has always had its risks, which can be eliminated in only one way: never launch, never try something new and daring.

We face historic and possibly Republic-busting budget issues. I've been crusading against the staggering deficits we've been running for three decades. I support fairly draconian action, and not the kind any of the players in DC are advocating.

But some programs must remain, and the JWST is one of those.


Published July 8, 2011